The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover via Goodreads.

Cover via Goodreads.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

How ironic that I would read The Poisonwood Bible immediately after publishing a blog post defending the merits of YA books. One individual commented about how literary fiction takes themes/motifs/messages and pushes them to the edge. I can see that with Barbara Kingsolver’s work.

Yes, the book preaches about anti-Westernization and the plights of religion. Even though I agree for the most part with Kingsolver’s descriptions of Christianity and colonialism, I can see why those who disagree or dislike her writing style in general would criticize the story. I myself had to trudge through the first 150 pages to get a solid grasp of the characters; I often had to flip to the beginning of each chapter to remind myself whose narration I was reading.

But the characters won me over. It would be easy to write a book report or literary analysis regarding how Kingsolver incorporates themes and motifs like the burden of guilt, the failures of religion, light v. darkness, etc. The way Kingsolver crafted her characters earns this book its four star rating. Reading Leah’s perspective in the last 100 pages in comparison to the first 100 pages feels like reading two different people, but Kingsolver made the massive transition smooth. Each narrator shares her perspective of the events in Africa, growing along the way. Even Rachel, who didn’t develop at all, maintained her voice throughout the story and contributed a thoughtfully thoughtless perspective.

Overall, a time-consuming yet ultimately worthy book about a missionary who travels to Africa with his wife and four daughters. It rarely takes me over a week to finish a work of fiction, but I don’t regret reading The Poisonwood Bible at all.



Filed under 4 stars, Book Reviews, Books

21 responses to “The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. I have this book but haven’t read it because of all the poor reviews I’ve read. I just feel like it may not be my kind of book. However, your comments about the characters winning you over makes me want to definitely read it now.

    • Cathal

      You should definitely read it! See my enthusiastic gush below lol. What negative reviews do you mean? I’ve seen a lot of negative reviews on Goodreads but that’s about it. I felt that those reviews often criticised the book for silly reasons- for example, that they disagreed with some of the ideas in the book, or were offended by the subject matter, rather than because they had any valid criticisms to make of the book. But of course people can like or dislike anything they want. The point I’m trying to make is that you should definitely read this book and make up your own mind.

      • Cassie, as Cathal said, I hope you read it despite the negative reviews you’ve read as well! Some Goodreads reviews can be snarky or unnecessarily harsh without mentioning the book’s good points (not all of them though.) Either way, I’m glad my review has motivated you to read the book, and I hope you enjoy it if you do.

  2. I don’t think I would have the patience to read through this book… However, I will try to read it sometime.

  3. Cathal


    I’m so glad you read this and liked it! I was made to read this in my final year of school and write about it in exams- not the ideal circumstances for being introduced to a book. Initally I wasn’t enamoured with it, and almost everyone in my year hated it, but it grew on me slowly, especially as I came to know the characters. I’ve read this book five or six times in the intervening years and it has never lost its magic for me.

    Kingsolver can definitely be a bit… obvious in the way she uses characters to represent particular ideas or viewpoints, but she can get away with it when the characters are so well realised. Your comment about not being able to remember who was narrating the chapter surprised me- after a certian point I was able to open the book at a random page and know instantly who was speaking, because the narrators’ voices are so distinct.

    This is one of the books that has stuck with me the most- the emotions I had for the characters and the tragic history of the place, the imagery and beauty of the language- the eyes in the trees, the glide of snake belly on branch. Ada may be one of my favourite fictional characters period. I’m not normally this gushy haha.

    Also read Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, another brilliant, brilliant book. Her other books are okay but nowhere near as good as these two.

    • Yeah, I haven’t really read a gushing comment from you before! The fact that you’ve read this book five or six times shows how much you appreciate it, it’s great that you’ve reread it so many times and still love it. I apologize if I made my point unclear; I meant that after the first 150 pages I was able to discern who the narrator, before then I had trouble though.

      I agree about Kingsolver’s imagery and how she made Africa come alive. I looked forward to Adah’s chapters throughout the entire book – Kingsolver’s ability to keep her consistent, develop her, and make her so interesting simultaneously amazed me!

      Anyway, thank you for your comment, and I’m glad you love The Poisonwood Bible so much.

  4. I tried, but those first 150 pages defeated me. Glad to hear someone enjoyed it, however. Nice to know why she has a good reputation, despite some lukewarm reviews.

    • Aw, I’m sorry that you didn’t get past the first 150 pages. Every book has bad reviews, and her works aren’t exempt, even if they do possess literary merit. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. I felt the same way about this book! Great review!

  6. I’m glad you gave this a 4 – I really enjoyed it. Great review: really does the book justice.

  7. I haven’t read this book yet, but generally I like books that make me work out my mind a bit, so maybe I should pick this one up and have a go at it.

    I’m not sure I buy into a mentality that’s very prevalent on Goodreads and such places that books have to be easy reads devoid of controversy. I can only think of a film to use as an example. “Grave of the fireflies” is such a painful film to watch, and you really have to watch it several times.

    It’s not painful because it is particularly difficult, or particularly inaccessible. The subject matter is just so painful because it’s about the death of two kids in Japan during World War 2. A five-year old girl starve to death, and then we follow her fourteen year old brother toward his death – also of starvation.

    But the film makes you think, and question, and you have to stop the film sometimes and read up on things. I like those kinds of works that don’t hesitate to challenge and to demand attention from you.

    I think those kinds of books are the best.

    • I agree, books that make you think and feel and research and motivate you to do more are the best. Grave of the Fireflies sounds like a heart-wrenching yet ultimately satisfying movie, perhaps I’ll check it out if I think I can handle it. Thank you for your thoughts!

  8. Great review Thomas! I also really love this book. I really saw Africa through her eyes.

  9. Cristy

    Ok, I stumbled onto your blog when I was looking for a book that I’ve loved but could never remember the name of. I read a post you made about young adult literature, and I was blown away by how thoughtful your post was. You mentioned two books called What They Tell Us, and Forbidden, and I really liked what you said about them, so I bought them, and I have to say, by the end of Forbidden, my heart had broken several times and I couldn’t stop crying. WTTU was a story that just made you glow inside by the end, so I just want to thank you for introducing me to one incredible book, and one heartwarming book. (Sorry for the long comment)

    • Cristy, there’s nothing that makes me happier than knowing that I introduced two fantastic books to someone who not only read those books but loved them as well. I’m glad that my post about YA books led you to read two of my favorite YA books; Forbidden and What They Always Tell Us are so different but both amazing. Thank you for letting me know that you enjoyed them.

  10. this book is a fun read about growing up as an American in the Congo. -don’t forget your quinine!

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