My daughter has been trying to get me to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible for a while now. I’ve been trying to get her to read John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. Since I’m writing a review on Kingsolver’s book and Grace isn’t writing one on Irving’s, I guess you know who won this one.
Actually, I think I’ve won, because now I’ve read them both. And I’d give them each five stars. That means I think they’re worth reading more than once, which is the rarest of endorsements from me.
I am disinclined to read any book titled anything to do with a bible. And, having said that, I will add that books written in the first person are not generally my cup of tea. If you’ve read many of my reviews, you know all too often I begin them by saying this is not the kind of thing I read, but ….
And here we go again.
Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is written in first person from five women’s points of view -- a mother in her mid-thirties and her four daughters from ages fifteen down to five. The Price women accompanied their Baptist missionary husband/father from Bethlehem, Georgia, to the Congo during the 1960’s, a time of political upheaval in both places.
Nathan Price’s point of view is not recorded here. He is just another of the natural disasters that this family must face and survive. That said, this is a book that gives us strong female characters, each different and identifiable one from the other. And, I think, each is a realistic portrayal of women, not a homogeneous ‘they’ but a ‘she’ and a ‘she’ and a ‘she’ five times. Even the youngest sees things as she would see things, not as her sisters or her mother do.
In this book tension is sustained and heightened not by chase scenes and explosions and things that jump out at you, but by impending death and the fear of death. Death doesn’t stalk these five women and the people of the Congo like a jungle cat. It hangs in the humid air and lies curled beneath an elephant ear leaf. It shadows children in raggedy clothes and floats down the Congo River. It festers in the hearts of men – Americans and Belgians and Congolese – far away from the Price family. And in the ambitions and jealousies and fears of men in their village and in their own house.
The women come through this period in their lives, each in her own way. Though not always in a way that we might admire or seek to emulate, they each demonstrate that greatest of human strengths, they endure.