RAD Book Club review: The Poisonwood Bible

04 May 2017

The book club’s latest discussion was on The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

Narrated by evangelical Baptist missionary Nathan Price’s wife and their four daughters, the story is an account of 30 years of postcolonial African history, and village life in the Belgian Congo.

We all enjoyed the book very much. We each appreciated different elements of it: some found the beginning slow and lacking action, whereas others liked how the characters built up the context and the narrative. However, we all agreed that at some point characters became somehow clichéd, perhaps more like caricatures, and therefore less interesting. ‘I believe in characters less the more they have to say’, one of us added. Because the narrative alternated different voices, there was a general feeling of not knowing where the book was heading.

Nathan’s presence is felt throughout the novel. However, the voice of this father figure is missing due to the author’s choice of relying solely on the children and wife to conduct the narrative. We also felt that we would have liked to have heard more from Orleanna, the mother, whose opinions, even her actions, seemed perhaps vague. There appeared to be some reference to violence in the relationship between husband and wife, although not clearly shown, which added to the feeling of vagueness in Orleanna’s portrayal. We talked about their relationship, what the attraction for each other might have been before marriage and once in the Congo, and how Orleanna managed to keep her independence.

During the discussion, we wondered why the author dedicated so much time researching and writing about African history and whether there was a biographical element to it. We also thought about the choices some the characters made, particularly those of Rachel, the oldest sister, and how these compared to the personality of the youngest one. The relationship of the mother with the children, especially with the twin sisters, was also debated. We also went through the children’s adopted nicknames and asked about how well they suited their characters.

We found some of the images used in the book quite powerful, shocking at times: the choice of objects to take to Africa, from ‘a pair of good scissors’ to a mirror, some to be used by none, others to be accessible to the whole village; the food left in the family kitchen by their neighbours, which nobody noticed; or the significance of the woman who told them there was no place called Kilanga along that road. We also thought the presentation of historical facts was quite interesting, sometimes even upsetting.

In conclusion, we found very interesting how the religious background, the narrative of family life, and the exposition of historical events was presented in the book. One of us even thought this was their favourite title in this book club season so far, and added that perhaps it could be picked up again in a few years‘ time so different elements in it could be better appreciated.