Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible is the Heart of Darkness, 100 years later, reversed, with some inverse Faulkner in the mix.
A missionary family moves to the Congo, just before the end of colonial rule. From the colonial/southern gothic genre, Barbara Kingsolver inherits the trajectory toward doom; the family descends from darkly comic misadventure (birthday cake mix ruined) to escalating disasters, flood, vermin, plague, hunger, madness. Objects of affection are introduced in early chapters, and are destroyed one by one.
But the moral of the gothic classics is inverted. Rather than miscegenation as the dark secret, interracial love is a redemptive force. The tragic outcome isn’t going native, it’s failure to recognize and adapt to a culture that is rich despite physical hunger.
The writing in the different voices of the four female characters is strong, and carries the novel, along with the downward cascade of the plot. The transformation of the main characters in the crucible of African experience is moderately compelling, though somewhat schematic; the submissive wife who finally finds the strength to leave her brutal husband; the pious daughter who finally sees through her father’s illusions; the cynical daughter who learns a bit of hope, the shallow beauty who becomes a tough survivor and irredeemable racist. The women have some complexity; the men are cardboard cutout villains or heroes.
The first two thirds of the book is an agonizing slide toward the dissolution of the family and transformation of the characters over 14 months. The last third rushes through 30 years in cartoon illustration of the author’s politics, and should have been cut by a good editor.
I read Poisonwood Bible at the recommendation of a friend. I think I want to read Achebe next on African tragedy when sufficiently brave. Things Fall Apart is in an Amazon list next to Night.

2 thoughts on “Poisonwood Bible”

  1. Adina, I was so glad to find your review of the Poisonwood Bible. I bought the book a few years ago, but never read it. It sat in a stack of wonderful reads that I always meant to get to some day. That some day came when I had an accident back in August. I’ve been laid up for a few months now, and the silver lining has been having nothing but time, and the books that have filled it. This particular chronicle was one of the most disturbing and yet most moving I’ve ever consumed. I simply couldn’t put it down. Barbara Kingsolver did a marvellous job of drawing you into the lives of these women and making them real. Glad to see your links to a few follow-up reads. I’m on the hunt for more, and appreciate your judgement. — Keeping a warm thought, Sue.

  2. hi
    This may not find you but I was wondering if one could talk about the poisonwood bible and the heart of darkness compartively in terms of whether Mr. Price’s life and Kurtz’s were determined to end that way because trying to control people or things around us is a fruitless goal?

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