[ Book Review ] Deepest, darkest Africa

Meg’s Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Read by Dean Robertson

The Poisonwood Bible is to CanaryTheFirst as Dresden Files is to me. For months, we’ve been harping on each other to read our respective favorite referable books. And I’d like to say that I read it to keep my partner happy. In actuality, I got it because it was dirt cheap in an Audible sale, and I was bored.

I’ve been done with the audiobook for well over a week and have had the above paragraph written for at least as long. But I’m drawing a complete blank as to how to continue on with the review. The Poisonwood Bible is the sort of story that demands one check their snark at the door, and I am nothing without my snark.

Suffice it to say, The Poisonwood Bible is a damn good book. The narrative follows the Price family—an American missionary, his wife, and their four daughters—into the Congo in the 1960s, a time when the Congolese were fighting for their independence.  The Prices’ posting is in Kilanga, a small, poor village along the Kwilu River. While their father attempts to brute force his way to Christian conversion, the daughters, aged 5 to 15, must find a way to survive the year-long posting so many thousands of miles from their native Georgia.

Kingsolver’s prose is a force to be reckoned with. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different Price woman: Orleanna (the mother), Rachel, Adah, Leah, or Ruth May. The character’s voices are so distinct that even popping back into the recording after a several-day break from listening, I was never had any doubts who was speaking. The strong distinction was especially prominent in the character of Adah, who has a penchant to obtusely lyrical thoughts and multiple-word palindromes. Writing the character must have been at once a joy and curse-word-inducing challenge.

If I have one critique of the novel, it would be that the time frame seems unnecessarily long. The narrative traces the women through the better part of thirty years. Several times, I looked at the number of hours left on the recording and said aloud, “There can’t possibly be so much story left!” It made the entire thing seem…anticlimactic. What I saw as the climax actually happened before the halfway point of the book. Either I’m off in my assumption, or it’s the single longest falling action I’ve ever seen.

Oddly, lack of climax didn’t make the book any less enjoyable, especially in audio form. The reader, Dean Robertson, was superb 98% of the time—and the other 2% was more due to slips in editing than in her actual reading, I think. In fact, I tried at least three times to pick my roommate’s hardcover copy of the book but found it to be utterly wrong to not have Robertson’s voice in my ears. The book’s prose is almost like a poem; it demands to be read aloud.

When I was in sixth grade, I was obsessed with historical fiction. I read every Ann Rinaldi and Avi book on my middle school library’s shelves. At some point, I drifted off to fantasy and scifi, but Kingsolver’s excellent novel of Congolese struggle and an American family caught in their own tragedies reawakened that love of a well-researched historical fiction story, the sort that transports without being overly description, and one that truly brings history to life. It’s a triumph of a novel.

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