The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

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Critical Overview

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Most reviews of The Poisonwood Bible were positive, though some stressed drawbacks while praising some parts. John Leonard wrote a glowing tribute in The Nation to Kingsolver's artistry. Leonard claims that in this novel, "Barbara King-solver has dreamed a magnificent fiction and a ferocious bill of indictment." Noting her shift from the domestic, southwestern American settings of her previous work, he concludes: "this new, mature, angry, heartbroken, expansive out-of-Africa Kingsolver—is at last our very own Lessing and our very own Gordimer, and she is, as one of her characters said of another in an earlier novel, 'beautiful beyond the speed of light.'"

Similarly impressed, Gayle Greene, in The Women's Review of Books, confesses, "not since Beloved have I been so engaged by a new work of fiction," and she praises "a story and characters that are gripping, a family saga that assumes epic and Biblical proportions." On the serious side, she applauds the novel's "strong political message, offering a scathing indictment of America's part in carving up Africa." But she also commends the novel's humor: "it has you laughing one moment and gasping with horror the next." In all, Greene finds it to be "a complex, textured work, its imagery patterns resonating across levels of meaning…. It is multivocal and multiphonic, its meaning not in a single voice but in the play of voices against one another."

Joining in, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly finds The Poisonwood Bible a "risky but resoundingly successful novel" that "delivers a compelling family saga, a sobering picture of the horrors of fanatic fundamentalism and an insightful view of an exploited country crushed by the heel of colonialism and then ruthlessly manipulated by a bastion of democracy." The reviewer praises its "marvelous mix of trenchant character portrayal, unflagging narrative thrust and authoritative background detail," and, like Greene, finds its humor "pervasive, too, artfully integrated into the children's misapprehensions of their world." The review concludes with the insistence that "King-solver moves into new moral terrain in this powerful, convincing and emotionally resonant novel."

Other reviewers were not as unconditional in their praise. Tim Stafford in Christianity Today, describing the novel as "grand and tragic," admits that "Kingsolver … writes beautifully and incisively of African village life." Stafford, however, finds fault with her characterization of Nathan Price, which, he claims, creates "a hole at the center of the book." He asserts that readers might "expect more insight" into this "incomprehensible" man. He also criticizes her "cartoonish story of idiot missionaries and shady CIA operatives destroying the delicate fabric of the Congo." Yet, her focus on the female members of the Price family "almost absolves the book of its shortcomings." He concludes: "King-solver writes luminously of these women who flex and cling to life, surviving, absorbing blows, still hoping. Their voices are unforgettable."

Stephen D. Fox in Critique criticizes King-solver's depiction of the villagers who, he claims, are "quite generalized, almost completely lacking in noteworthy or unique customs." Kimberly A. Koza in Critique concludes that the work "gains its power through [Kingsolver's] exploration of the Price women's struggles to judge their own complicity in both their family's fate and that of the Congo" but complains that her "shift to polemic in the second part of the novel often leads her to generalize and, at times, to oversimplify historical complexities."

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