The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver

Premise: In 1959 Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary, takes his family from Mississipi into the heart of the Congo. Narrated by his wife, Orleanna, and his four very different daughters, the story sees the family take up residence in a remote village where Nathan hectors the locals with apocalyptic sermons. With opposing cultures clashing, Nathan struggles with his task of converting these stubborn non-believers. He tries to baptise them in the river but the locals are rightly scared of lurking crocodiles. He tries to speak their language but gets the words wrong with humorous consequences. At the same time, the five women struggle with life in this alien world. They endure malaria, drought and plagues of ants. And with time, each of them is searching for a way out.

Adopting a genuinely convincing character voice is a surprisingly hard thing to do. It takes ventriloquism and mimicry and a great deal of practice. It is easy to slip up and allow an inappropriate word or phrase to wend its way into the stream of things. And it is easy to become exaggerated or to rely too heavily on certain cornerstones. Somehow, though, Kingsolver manages to adopt five very different voices in the telling of her story.

Orleanna, the mother, has the benefit of hindsight and is wistful in her narrative. The way she speaks to us is full of imagery and beautifully poignant description. She is carrying the weight of her emotion on her sleeve. The four daughters, meanwhile, tell the story as if they are in the heart of the action. The eldest, Rachel, remains unflinchingly American. She clings to her nice clothes and wants nothing more than to return to the land of flushing toilets. She is moody and unwilling to adapt to this different way of life.

Leah comes next. She is the only one of Nathan’s daughters who seems to hold any respect for her father. Whilst helping him plant a garden (which, in a metaphor for Nathan’s futile endeavours, fails to bear any fruit), she dreams of following in his footsteps. To highlight this, her speech is peppered with religious references. And of all the daughters, she is the one who most embraces their new life. She falls for the local teacher, Anatole, learns the local language and becomes proficient with a bow and arrow. Her insistence on joining the hunt with the men causes unforeseen consequences that will eventually tear the family apart.

Adah is Leah’s twin sister. Suffering from hemiplegia, she is unable to talk out loud for the majority of the novel. The reader, however, is party to her inner monologue and finds her inventively intelligent. She revels in the beauty of language – palindromes, the different meaning of similar sounding words. And it is often her narrative that is most perceptive of their new world. Finally, there is Ruth May who is only five years old. In her, Kingsolver captures an innocent clarity. She is untainted by America and complex emotions, and she provides an honest counterpoint to the teenage angst of her three sisters.

Through these different, utterly convincing voices, then, this is a lovingly crafted novel. The story itself draws the reader in and the various struggles of the family transport us to the jungle setting in a brilliantly vivid way. In the backdrop, there is the threat of political upheaval. And alluded to, in the foreground, are themes of cultural conflict, guilt, justice and religious interpretation. It is a fantastically immersive novel which both educates and entertains.

Other books told from the perspective of different character voices: “The Woman in White” (Wilkie Collins), “Ghostwritten” (David Mitchell)


Other highly rated books by this author: “The Lacuna”, “Flight Behaviour”

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