Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

616 pages

I've been putting off reviewing this book, because I know it's going to be a hard one.  On the one hand I found it absolutely absorbing and couldn't put it down for the 3 days it took to read it. On the other hand there were several issues I had with it that riled me.  I'm going to do a lot of moody complaining in this review, so let me just say before I start that I did actually like this book.  It annoyed me, yes, but I am certainly going to be reading it again.

I was given the book by someone that didn't enjoy it at all, but when I mentioned I was reading it I had several friends tell me it was one of their all time favourites so I didn't know what I was going to think.

In a nutshell the book follows the Price family as they are transported from America to the Congo by their maniacal father who is on a mission to save the natives. It discusses three generations but really focusses on the children. In terms of plot I had a lot of time for this book.  You need to totally suspend disbelief, and I mean totally. It is astounding to the reader that a religious zealot could have been given support by any organisation to carry out a personal quest when so clearly mentally ill.  It is astonishing that such a man could drag his wife and daughters along with him with never a word of dissent from them prior to the event.  It is truly unbelievable that all of these characters come from the same family.  But then again, maybe life was just like that in the 50s and 60s, what would I know?

Barbara Kingsolver can write, she really can.  There are passages in the book that are almost painfully beautiful. The book is so evocative of a time and space in rural central Africa you can almost taste and smell it.  Why on earth she decided to employ the rather irritating plot device of writing each chapter from a different person's perspective I will never know.  The problem with this is that every single one of the central characters is a caricature.  The stupid one is an imbecile, the clever one talks in riddles, the 'normal one' is dullsville, the tragic poet spots rare animals in the forest, the religious zealot uses everything for a sermon, the cad is a irredeemable rake, the one that married a villager is perfection itself, the baby forms a natural bond with the natives...BAH! The most believable people are the supporting cast which is quite irritating.

My other annoyance?  So desperate is Kingsolver to let us know that she has researched the history of the Congo thoroughly that she has her characters mention lots of world political events, and local political events 'in passing'.  This is most irritating towards the end of the book where it really does become nonsensical the include it in the conversations. Let's just say I'm almost surprised she didn't have one of the supporting cast turn out to be the real culprit in the murder of JFK.  I really wish she had limited herself to the one generation.  After about page 400 things got rather dull and contrived as we start to follow the children when they are grown up. But who can complain really when they've been given 400 good pages!

OK gripes over.  This book is a keeper.  I don't want to let it go and I do want to re-read it.  For all that it annoyed me, it totally captured me and I suspect it's going to be on my bookshelf for many years to come. I'd love to hear your views on it, if you have read it, this is a book I wish I had read with my book group as I think it would stand up to a good afternoon of dissection, wine in hand.

If you liked this one, try The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell or Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese.

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