Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

So, my book group read this book about a month ago, but I am just now getting around to writing a review about it. First of all, a warning: this is a very long novel, but don't be overwhelmed by that. My husband borrowed the audio CDs from the library and just listened to it during his daily commute. It took him probably about a week to week-and-a-half, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The basic plot line of the story is that a Southern minister (I want to say Baptist, but don't quote me on that) packs up his wife and four daughters in the 1960s and moves to the Congo to preach for a year. The family (the father in particular) arrives with expectations to change the heathen ways of the natives, and instead the story shows how Africa changes each of the members of the family.

First of all, Kingsolver has a beautiful way with words. She describes all the elements of Africa through the eyes of her characters. This is effective because the characters compare American life (what most readers will already be familiar with) to Africa and its ways (what many readers won't know about), so the reader feels like he/she is going on the journey as well. The reader feels the oppressive heat, the red earth, the frustration when nothing grows, or the fear of hunted animals. The reader is gradually guided through the story as well so he/she eventually develops sympathy then empathy for the African lifestyle.

Kingsolver is also a master of voice. The story is told through the four daughters' voices, with an occasional insert by the mother. Each voice is distinct to the character's status, age, ability, and personality. Evidently the audio version does not name each new speaker at the new chapters, but my husband was still able to tell who was controlling the story simply by its language. Even what the various family members find important enough to report about (to the reader) helps establish their individuality.

Though perhaps overly simplified, the characters are good representations of various responses to African life. Each family member responds to the various situations and experiences differently, and the story follows a logical influence through to the end. It is fascinating to see which characters are changed, and which remain the same, but the final outcomes are all credible according to the personalities of the characters.

Finally, the story is historically grounded in political actions of the time, but the reader does not feel overwhelmed by the history. In fact, perhaps the opposite occurs. The author takes the approach that the characters are too involved in day-to-day survival to take much notice of the political dynamic; they do not realize they are living historical events until reflecting back years later. Though there is enough history to ground the reader, someone looking for a history lesson will be disappointed with this book.

In conclusion, I would definitely recommend this book. Its biggest drawback is its length (about 2 1/2 inches thick), and I would recommend the audio version if that seems a bit overwhelming. But the story as well as the perspective of the author are well worth the effort.