The Poisonwood Bible

August 17th, 2012 by

I’ve just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  What a brilliant book.  I first read it over ten years ago.  I was initially reluctant because it looked like it might just be about the worst of religion.  I knew enough about that.  But it has so much more depth to it than a superficial swipe at Christians getting it wrong.  The numerous ways we can get it wrong could be summed up by the phrase “Jesus is bangala”.  Depending on the exact pronunciation of “bangala” this either means “Jesus is precious” or “Jesus is poisonwood”.  Suspicious of the interpreter, the preacher tries to use the local language himself and you can guess which message he often ends his ranting sermons with. There is a lot of fascinating play with language – from the daughter who constantly gets words slightly wrong, to the one who deliberately turns words round and can read back to front as easily as forwards.  I was much more aware of this on my second reading (or perhaps I just hadn’t remembered it so clearly).

There are the vastly different characters of the mother and four daughters with the legacy they each carry of their supposedly similar experiences – experiences in the Congo and of their family.  There’s the learning curve of realising how much labels can mislead – whether the label is to do with race, colour, religion, politics, gender, disability, love, hate, family….  Any label has limitations.  Maybe this is all sounding very worthy and I suppose it is.  But it’s also a really good read in the best tradition of family sagas.  Each of Kingsolver’s books that I’ve read has been very different.  She obviously does a huge amount of research.  I look forward to trying other titles and re-reading those already on my shelves.