Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Poisonwood Bible: A Review

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is the best book I've read in a while. I'd heard it mention before, but I didn't know much about it. I bought it because it follows a zealous missionary family as they journey into the heart of the Congo in 1960 and I thought it would give me a good insight into the type of people that dedicate their life so zealously to their religion. I got more than I ever could have expected.

Instead of following the missionary himself, the story focuses on the women around him - his wife and four daughters. This is their story.

As a writer, arguably the most fascinating aspect of this book was its structure. It has five point-of-view characters, the mother and daughters, and each is written in first person. As someone who loves first person for its intimacy, this book is exactly what I picture when I say first person can be done amazingly. I've read a lot of articles and op-eds that declare first person the realm of the beginner. That true "literary" works are not written as such. That's complete bunk. Of course first person can be done badly. So can any POV. And, yes, first person may actually be more difficult to do well, but when someone with the skill of Ms. Kingsolver does it, it transcends all expectations.

Each character had such a uinique voice that even without the character's name at the beginning of each chapter, I would have known who was speaking. From the physical immediateness of little five year old Ruth May to the shallow, almost illiterate complaints of sixteen year old Rachel, each character achieves individuality. I'm sure this took a lot of work on the writer's part, but it comes off as so easy, so organic, I never once questioned the author's choice of POV.

The story itself weaves a complex tapestry of what counts as "everyday" life in the Congo with the vast socio-economic history of the region. The questions it forces its characters (and readers) to confront are intriguing and uncomfortable. It questions religion's place in a world where one person or one group of people hold such dominating power over others. From the abusive relationship between the father and his family to the abusive relationship between the colonial powers and their victim Africa. The Poisonwood Bible is a spectacular work of technical ability, social consciousness, and the intimacy of a family.

It is by far one of the best books I have ever read and I met its end with the melancholic regret of finishing a good book. I'm sure I'll pick it up again in my lifetime if for no other reason then to study the masterful writing technique of Barbara Kingsolver and her other books have earned a place on my to-read list.

“Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, I've only found sorrow.” 

-The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

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