The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

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 Shortlisted for the Orange Prize 1999

The Poisonwood Bible is a book I had been wanting to read for a long time, but for some reason, I kept putting it off. It wasn’t until the wonderful Michelle offered to send a copy to me, that I was given the push I needed to finally pick it up.

The Poisonwood Bible focuses on a Baptist family who move from America to the Belgian Congo in 1959 with the aim of converting the African people to the Christian faith. The family quickly realise that life in Africa will not be as simple as they imagined. They have to learn to cope with the hardships brought on by both the wildlife and the political instability of the region.

Initially I loved the rich detail of the prose, each of the characters was beautifully crafted and life in the Congo was vividly depicted, but after a couple of hundred pages I began to become frustrated with it. I was expecting the story to take hold once the characters had been introduced, but this didn’t happen. The pace of the book remained incredibly slow, which meant that it often failed to hold my attention. There was no momentum to drive the plot forward, so the 600+ pages seemed to drag more than they should have done.

Despite this criticism it was a very good book; there were a lot of touching scenes and I loved following the family over several decades. This book contained some great messages about which things in society are important and the attitude of Nathan, the fierce minister, will promote some interesting discussions.

And so he continues ministering to the lepers and outcasts. By pure mistake, his implementation is sometimes more pure than his intentions. But mostly it is the other way around. Mostly he shouts, ‘Praise be!’ while the back of his hand knocks you flat.

Recommended to anyone with the patience to read a long, slow novel.

stars41

Did you enjoy The Poisonwood Bible?

Are you looking forward to her next novel, The Lacuna, being released in November?


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93 Comments

  1. Eva says:

    I’m in the minority-I *loathed* this one. I thought the event that the whole first half of the plot led up to was artificially manipulative; it existed for no reason other than to get an emotional reaction out of me. I resented that. And then after that event, it was like a completely different book. And I kept thinking ‘why do I even care? oh wait, I don’t.’

    This was my first experience w/ Kingsolver, and it’s made me very, very unlikely to ever read another one of hers!

    1. Jackie says:

      Eva, I can see why you thought that way. It was quite emotionally manipulative, but I quite like that in a book. I’m not sure I want to read any more of her books. I’m in no rush to get her new one, but I might pick up one of her older ones at some point.

  2. Lezlie says:

    I *loved* The Poisonwood Bible! I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was about it, but I thought it was wonderful. I listened to the audiobook, so the parts that were draggy were easier to get through. For some reason, though, I have no desire at all to read any of her other books.

    Lezlie

    1. Jackie says:

      Lezlie, I can’t imagine the audio book being good for this book. I like listening to lighter, quicker books on audio. This one seems too long and slow for me to enjoy listening to, but I am interested to read that you thought the reverse was true. The narrators must have been amazing!

  3. Teresa says:

    I’m with Eva on this one. (In fact, I think Eva’s the only other person I’ve encountered who shares my opinion.) I actually thought the first half was interesting, but the second half…ugh. It was a completely different book–one that relied strongly on artificial, lazy stereotypes.

    The Bean Trees, on the other hand, is a lovely book, and I have a copy of the sequel (Pigs in Heaven) but haven’t gotten around to it. So I’m not writing off Kingsolver entirely.

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, I have found there to be a 50:50 split between people who love this book and those that loathe it. I think I am one of the few people who think it is quite good, but not one of the most amazing things I have ever read. It is good to hear that The Bean Trees is good – I’ll have to make sure I give it a try at some point.

  4. I confess that I began this book a couple of times but set it aside in both instances because I just couldn’t get into it. It’s one of those books that I am sure I will like once I really give it some time though, so I do plan to try again. I am glad you ended up enjoying it, Jackie. It gives me hope. I just need to keep reading the next time. :-)

    1. Jackie says:

      Literary Feline, I can see why you’d give up on this book – it is very slow. I think you have to be in the right mindset and read it slowly. I read other things at the same time and read it in small chunks. I think I would have abandoned it after about 150 pages if I had to read it on its own.

  5. Kailana says:

    I am the same way. I have wanted to read this forever and still haven’t read it. I own it even, so I really don’t have an excuse!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kailana, I know the feeling! This seems to be one of those important books that everyone else has already read. The blurb makes it sound quite dull though. It never really appeals. I can see why you haven’t got round to it, but I hope you mange to at some point.

  6. Dorte H says:

    As I lived in Africa for six months many years ago, I might enjoy reading about their settling down, but 600 pages? It has to be a really good book to keep me preoccupied.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dorte, Yes, I think you might enjoy the first few hundred pages – if you can cope with the slow detail, but I’m not sure about the rest. I look forward to finding out what you make of it.

  7. claire says:

    I really liked this. I’m not the greatest Barbara Kingsolver fan but have read 4 of her books (The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, and this) and I like her enough but am not completely gushing over her though. I’m not rushing to read The Lacuna either. So many other authors I want to read more.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, It sounds as though we feel the same way – good, but not great. I’m impressed that you’ve read so many of her books when you feel that way. I’m not sure I’ll get round to reading that many.

  8. ak says:

    I haven’t read this but had heard good things about it. Your review helps me a lot! I do plan to read it someday…

    1. Jackie says:

      ak, I hope you get round to it at some point. I suppose it is an important book in many ways.

  9. Pam says:

    I *loved* this book. So disappointed that you didn’t as I was really looking forward to your review. I found the 600 pages flew by and could hardly put it down…

    1. Jackie says:

      Pam, Sorry to disappoint you! I did enjoy it, but it isn’t going to make it onto any of my favourite read lists.

  10. Sandy says:

    I greatly enjoyed this one, but may have made a difference that I listened to it on audio. It was very well narrated, and the personalities and the atmosphere of the Congo came to life. It is funny how that works. On audio, this book didn’t drag at all, and would never have guessed it was a 600 page book. I thought her writing was absolutely beautiful, like a tasty little treat meant to be savored.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I might try listening to one of her other books on audio. I am amazed that it didn’t drag on audio. I’ll have to see who is narrating it and see if they are reading any of her other books.

  11. Kathleen says:

    I loved The Poisonwood Bible and gave it to my elderly mother to read and she loved it too. It is one of the few books that she and I have both read recently (last couple of years). I plan to re-read it (it is sitting on my TBR pile as I write this) and look forward to reading the new one when it come out in November. I have to confess, I didn’t know about the new one coming out so thank for including that in your review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, It is great to know that different generations enjoyed this book.

      I hope you like her new book when it comes out!

  12. Jeane says:

    I loved it. I couldn’t get through Bean Trees or Pigs in Heaven, but I really liked the Prodigal Summer as well. I didn’t know there was a new one coming out- another to add on my list!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, It sounds as though I should give Prodigal Summer a try if I want to read another of her books – thanks for letting me know!

  13. A long, slow novel…. doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. However, as it was shortlisted for the Orange prize, I’ll probably be giving it a shot one of these days.

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, You confuse me more every day! I thought you liked slow books – as long as the writing was good?

  14. Nan says:

    I loved this book. I read it several years ago during my summer vacation. I enjoyed my quiet time each day, curling up with the book. This is the only book by this author that I have read. I didn’t know she had a new one coming out. I’ll have to check it out.

    1. Jackie says:

      Nan, I hope you enjoy her new book!

  15. Aimee says:

    I foudn this to be such an amazing book. I mean sure- it was a bit strange how it didn’t build up to suspense and rather had heightened scenarios at various jilted intervals throughout the book, but I adored the sense of place and I thought the author did an amazing thing when she showed how alien these girls were in society. I could feel their alien characetrs but of course, ebign white and from Western society I would ahve been the same. Twas a strange and absorbing book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Aimee, I thought the sense of place and the atmosphere of this book was great. I just wish the plot had a bit more momentum in places. I’m pleased that you enjoyed it.

  16. Amy says:

    I liked this book but it took me a long time to read it. I sometimes felt like I was slogging through it. It was a wierd experience because I got into reading it quickly but then I hit a wall. I like the wat she writes and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of Kingsolver’s other books thiusone was just a little off for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I wonder if you hit the wall at the same place as me? I took me a lot longer than normal to read this book, as I did find it hard going in places, but as long as I took it in small chunks it was quite good. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

  17. Jenny says:

    I love this book, but I found the last quarter dragged – after they had left Africa, and the book followed them through their later lives. But she did an amazing job capturing the different voices of the women.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I quite liked the last quarter, but agree it was very different in style to the rest of the book, so can see why you might have struggled with it.

  18. bookmagic says:

    This is the only Kingsolver book I have not read. I have it, but I’m daunted by it’s size and I have heard from other that it is a slow read. I guess I will get to it one of these days

    1. Jackie says:

      bookmagic, yes, the length is quite off-putting. You just have to pace yourself really. If you have read all her other books then you must like her style, so I’m sure you’ll love it.

  19. Alana says:

    I loved this book SO much. I admit it’s slow, but I just got caught up in the beauty of her writing, and felt connected to the characters. I couldn’t put it down.

    I’ve also read “Prodigal Summer” by Kingsolver, and it’s the same kind of deal – very slow, maybe even slower – but the she describes the natural surroundings with such beauty that it evoked really strong emotions. I still think about it almost every day and may even read it again despite my enormous TBR pile. I really want to read her other novels, and definitely The Lacuna.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alana, I find it hard to imagine a book being slower than this one, but I do love emotion in my books, so I’m sure I’ll pick up Prodigal Summer one day. Thank you for the excellent summary of it!

  20. Diane says:

    This is one book that has sat on my shelf for a while. I really hope to read it soon. I enjoyed your review Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, I’m really grateful I was given a copy, as I think it would have sat on my shelf for a very long time if that hadn’t been the case! I hope you enjoy it!

  21. Alice Teh says:

    I’m not sure I’d enjoy it but I do know it’s a good book. Thanks for the review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Alice, It is a good book! I hope you enjoy it!

  22. Litlove says:

    My mother-in-law keeps recommending this book to me, but I have a faint aversion to stories about saintly human endurance in the outback. And I loved Oscar and Lucinda and don’t think I can take another missionary story after it. I’m also not the most patient reader! But I’d like to read Kingsolver, and have Prodigal Summer on my shelves for the right moment.

    1. Jackie says:

      Litlove, this is a very different book to Oscar and Lucinda. I love the African aspect of Poisonwood, but did like the romance of Oscar and Lucinda. They are too different to compare really, but if you don’t like slow books then this may be one to avoid…

  23. It seems that this a kind of Marmite book – I love Marmite and I loved this book! I enjoyed seeing the events through very different viewpoints of all the daughters and their mother. The physicality of the setting was almost overwhelming at times for me – I also felt that I knew a lot more about that part of Africa after reading this book (The only part of that continent I’ve ever set foot on is Morocco!)
    It’s several years since I read it, but from what I can remember, the only slight reservation that I had was with the final part, which sort of fizzled out, if I remember rightly. But I’d still give it 5 stars out of5 – and like Kathleen it’s one I expect to read again.

    1. Jackie says:

      Christine, It is strange that I enjoyed the last section more than most. I love marmite, but although I enjoyed this book it isn’t going on my 5 star list. It was too slow for me. I’m pleased you enjoyed it though.

  24. PS – for LItlove
    I don’t remember ‘saintly human endurance’ From what I can remember, it was more about human arrogance and ignorance – One thing that sticks in my mind was the missionary’s misinterpretation of the ‘natives” aversion to total immersion baptisms in the river. They didn’t fancy becoming a meal for the numerous crocodiles that frequented it.

  25. Rebecca Reid says:

    I read this when I was much younger, and I recall really enjoyed the first half of the book. But then there was a shift and I felt the second half was completely different. I can’t recall the point of it at this point, but I just remember being horribly disappointed by how it played out. Not a favorite, or one that I intend to revisit.

    1. Jackie says:

      Rebecca, Sorry to hear you were disappointed by this book. I thought that I would be several times, but it always managed to pick up again. It wasn’t perfect, but overall I enjoyed reading it. It is interesting how opinion is so divided oover this book.

  26. Stephanie says:

    I figured I would LOVE this book. With all the great hype, how could I go wrong? Unfortunately, I wasn’t a big fan of TPB. It wasn’t bad, per say, just a bit lackluster. That’s not to say i didn’t enjoy a good portion of it, but I found myself a little too bored.

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, I think I had similar feelings to you. I almost rated it slightly lower, but I think it is one of those books which grows on you. There were many times I was bored reading it, but overall I’m pleased I did and would recommend it to others.

  27. softdrink says:

    Another non-fan. It was way too long…it was actually torturous to finish it. And to this day, I’m not sure why I bothered.

    1. Jackie says:

      softdrink, I am amazed at how much this book is dividing people. I agree that it was too long though.

  28. She says:

    I really, really liked The Poisonwood Bible. I got really into what was happening with all the characters, and I think I remember crying when Ruth May (is that her name?) dies and the aftermath from that. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      She, This book wasn’t good enough to move me to tears, but I did think that scene was very powerful.

  29. Jenners says:

    I did read this ages ago and felt a bit ho hum about it. I didn’t seek out another Kingsolver book after reading this one (it was my first) so I guess that says enough of how I felt.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I think it may be a while before I seek out any more of her books. I hope her new one is good.

  30. Fyrefly says:

    I really liked this book, but then, Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors (so, to answer your second question: yes!) I didn’t find it particularly slow until the second half, but then I agree that after that I didn’t see where the story was going and it just kind of moseyed around until it ended.

    1. Jackie says:

      Fyrefly, She doesn’t get close to being one of my favourite authors, but I can see why other people would love her. I hope the new book lives up to expectations!

  31. Stacy says:

    I always read such good things about this one, but I’ve heard that it’s “slow” enough times to make me put off reading it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Stacy, It is slow, but I think it is worth the effort in the end.

  32. booklogged says:

    This is one of my all-time favorites! The amount of symbolism woven gracefully into this beautiful story makes me want to read it again because I know I missed a lot. Love the symbolism of what we carry with us, the things we thing will be important, that end up not being important. The whole book is symbolism for the U.S. going into countries like the Congo and trying to ‘preach’ that our way of life is better than their way.

    I encourage you to search the web and read more about the symbolism. Hopefully, some of those sites still exist. I was blown away by the beauty of the words, the layers upon layers of symbolic meaning and the over all comparison to the U.S.

    I’ve read Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven – enjoyable stories but nothing like the masterpiece of Poisonwood Bible. I tried to read Prodigal Summer and quit half way through. So it’s with mixed feelings that I look forward to her new release, but I will definitely be checking it out.

    1. Jackie says:

      booklogged. I didn’t notice much symbolism in the book, but can see that this would be a great book for re-reading. I’m sure that there is a lot to discover on a second reading. I’ll go and have a look for posts on symbolism. Thank you!

  33. Verity says:

    I loved this book so much, and all of her other books. I didn’t know that she had another one coming out so I’m really excited about that.

    1. Jackie says:

      Verity, I hope you like her new book!

  34. Beth F says:

    I’m in the “haven’t read it yet” camp. I have no idea why I haven’t tried it, and I don’t think I’ll be picking it up soon. It’s fascinating that it seems to be a love it or hate book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, I’d love to know what you thought of this book. It does seem to divide people!

  35. Claire says:

    I have had The Poisonwood Bible on my TBR list for a number of years and I will reach it at some point. There are so many more books that I feel more inclined to read first though and perhaps it’s the mixed reviews that make me feel that way… we can’t all love the same book though so who knows how I’ll feel about it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, That is exactly how I felt about it – I don’t think I’d have read it for a while if I hadn’t been given a copy. I’d love to know what you thought of it though.

  36. Heidi says:

    Just an FYI this was a finalist for the pulitzer as well in 1999. This has been on my list forever and I just never get that really strong urge to pick it up….

    1. Jackie says:

      Heidi, I didn’t realise it was a finalist for the Pulitzers too. I never really look at books which didn’t quite make the Pulitzers, but it is good to know that!

  37. Kari says:

    I loved this book, but I’m with you completely. It was so slow.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kari, It is nice to know I’m not alone!

  38. Wendy says:

    I loved this book and didn’t find it slow…but I know other readers will agree with your assessment. I didn’t know she had a new book coming out (I think I have been so out of the loop the last couple of months that stuff like this is just passing me by!)…but yes, I am looking forward to reading more of Kingsolver!

    1. Jackie says:

      Wendy, At last a book where our opinions don’t match exactly! I hope you enjoy the new Kingsolver!

  39. I really enjoyed this one, but I can see how if you felt it was too slow, that would be tough! Here’s a link to my review:

    http://bibliofreakblog.com/fiction/poisonwood-bible-iby-barbara-kingsolveri/

    1. Jackie says:

      JT, I did enjoy reading it, despite it’s pace. I’ll take a look at your review now – thanks!

  40. This is a novel I tried to read several times before I finally gave it away. I just could not get into it. I was hoping that your review would make me want to pick it up again, but it sounds like you have some of the same issues I had – but at least you finished it. Maybe when I’m older…

    1. Jackie says:

      Literate Housewife, Sorry I wasn’t the one to persuade you to pick it up again. Perhaps someone else will do that soon!

  41. Trish says:

    Talk about a character-driven novel! I loved this book but for me it was also a struggle to get to the finish line. I loved how Kingsolver took each section and made it one of the girls’, but it did seem to take a long time to get anywhere–not to mention the fact that the book spans decades. Even still, it’s in my “want to read again” pile.

    1. Jackie says:

      Trish, I don’t think this would ever make it into my re-read pile, but I am very pleased that I read it once. It was a struggle in places, but it was worth the effort!

  42. Louise says:

    The funny thing is that I felt the first 50-100 pages to move so slowly that I almost gave up. But I ended up loving the book :) I haven’t read anything else by Kingsolver and not sure I will, but I really liked Poisonwood Bible. Its been years since I read it, and I can barely remember the manipulative parts you talk about here. But I do remember I loved it after having gotten through the first part.

    1. Jackie says:

      Louise, It is interesting that we had different opinions on the start of the book. I loved the initial setting, and didn’t begin to get frustrated with the slowness until a bit further in. I think it shows an interesting difference in our book tastes!

  43. Michelle says:

    I thought I’d commented on this already! Oops. I read this many years ago when I had more time and patience for books. It is rather slow, and I’m not sure if I was reading it for the first time now if I’d make it through or not. I did enjoy it though, and I’m glad you did as well!

    1. Jackie says:

      Michelle, That is exactly how I felt – it was slow, but enjoyable. I think I have more patience for books now than I did a few years ago. It is interesting that you have found the reverse to be true.

  44. I read this when it first came out — loved it!!! I love all of Kingsolver’s novels, actually. It’s always so interesting to me to read why someone has not enjoyed something that I did enjoy. That’s what makes book discussions so lively! :)
    I look forward to her new novel!!

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, I do love discussing books – it is boring when everyone likes the same thing!

  45. Jeanne says:

    I loved this one. Sometimes I react to Kingsolver’s preachiness, but I thought she channeled that in the character of the father, here!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeanne, I had worried about the preachiness of this book, but I thought it was balanced quite well by the other characters, so I didn’t find it to be a problem.

  46. Tracie Yule says:

    I loved this book, but I listed to it on CD, which I think helped. I often am more likely to like really long books if I listen to them rather than “read” them. I think the reading of it definitely influenced my opinion of it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Tracie, I am surprised that this worked on audio, but I’ll take your word for it! I struggle to find the time for long audios, but can see how they’d work for others.

  47. Tracy
    I’ve recently starting ‘reading’ books on CDs and I agree with you that some long books are probably more accessable like that- e.g – I loved Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, but I’m not sure I’d have stuck with it in the book version.
    (Also Labyrinth by Kate Mosse)
    However, I read TPB years ago as a book, and I loved it.
    One thing I’ve noticed about what influences my enjoyment of a book, is the amount of time I can devote to it in one go. Any book that I find a bit complex and/or ‘slow’ is usually more enjoyable if I can read it in large chunks.

    1. Jackie says:

      Christine, It is interesting that you struggled with Cloud Atlas – I loved it!

      I am struggling with Labyrinth at the moment. I had given up reading it, but then I went to see the author talk yesterday and am now tempted to give it another try. It is OK, but I’m not sure I want to read 600 pages of OK. Perhaps I should find the audio book and give it a try. Thank you for your helpful comment!

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