Classic review: The Poisonwood Bible

A Baptist minister brings his version of salvation – and his family – to the simmering Congo of the 1960s.

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Nov. 19, 1998.] In her newest novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes the kind of artistic risks only a beginner - or a genius - would dare take.There are problems in this big book, but I once knew a ceramics teacher who told his students, "A perfectly centered pot is a dead pot." Despite its uneven quality, The Poisonwood Bible is a vessel that holds our attention and some powerful ideas.

The story rotates through a series of monologues by the wife and four daughters of a ferocious Baptist preacher from Bethlehem, Ga., who's determined to bring his version of salvation to the incendiary Congo in 1960.

The arrogance of Western missionaries is hardly news, but Price's blinding pride makes for a story that's often comic despite its tragedy. After months of incomprehensible sermons, the minister fails to lure even one soul down to the river for baptism. The natives have no interest in rushing toward salvation in the next life by bathing with crocodiles in this one.

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Secure in his superior intellect, Price eventually drives away his kind translator and sends up jumbled prayers to a local version of poison ivy instead of to Jesus. As his acerbic daughter notes, "It is a special kind of person who will draw together a congregation, stand up before them with a proud, clear voice, and say words wrong, week after week."

Even as political explosions roar in the distance and plagues of Biblical proportions descend upon them, Price refuses to let his family flee. The daughters react in strikingly different ways, but Kingsolver's success at portraying them is uneven.

The youngest never seems entirely authentic, and the oldest remains so shallow that the point - that not everyone is deepened by struggle - seems belabored.

The other three narrators, though, are fascinating. The minister's longsuffering wife recalls her misadventures in the jungle through a haunting moan of regret. And the mismatched twins, Leah and Adah, provide the real heart of the book. Struggling to be the son Price never had, Leah worships her abusive father until bitter disillusionment sends her reeling into the arms of his opposite. Throughout her life, she remains desperate for an idealism worthy of her devotion.

Bent since birth by a brain injury and denied entrance into the world of girlhood, brilliant Adah has withdrawn into the world of language, a jungle of puns, homonyms, rhymes, and palindromes: "Live was I ere I saw evil." Her ability to read words, the Word, and the world backward and forward mires her in irony even as it gives her insights into social and religious absurdities that no one else can perceive.

"The Poisonwood Bible" is most successful in the first half when its universal insights are conveyed through private moments of transformation, when these women in the crucible of despair come to understand humanity's great need. It's weakest when the family splits apart and the characters become mouthpieces for not particularly fresh statements about the abuses of colonialism.

Nevertheless, Kingsolver is a favorite of American book clubs, and the strands of history and politics woven through this exciting story will make for particularly good discussion.

Looking back at her 17 months in Africa, Adah notes, "No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill." With all its complexity, this is a novel worthy of that grand and tragic subject.

Ron Charles is a former Monitor book editor.

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