We are directed into a strange, blinking forest in the village of Kilanga, Republic of the Congo, in 1959. Immediately, five female figures centralize themselves within the scene (seemingly misplaced, blondes and brunettes), emerging one-bodied from the belly of the forest.
We observe them as ‘the eyes in the trees’, guided by the force of a solemn, almost mournful narration. This voice later identifies herself to be one of the five figures, the mother, Orleanna Price, and places the other four as the daughters within her family of six. She rattles off their likeness in bold adjectives (‘short and fierce’, or ‘tall and imperious’), regarding them with a puzzling, rueful familiarity that we as arboreal eyes fail to share. She pauses only to introduce the final missing character: her husband, Nathan Price, a feverish evangelical Baptist who whisked the family from the U.S. into the Congo to fulfill the duties of the Southern Baptist Mission League.
This is how the Poisonwood Bible opens, a novel as mysterious as its name. From there, it documents the Price family as they attempt to navigate Congo soil during its tumultuous annexation as a Belgian colony, and their life after. It’s a bit heavy for beach reading (hah, double meanings! Tell me I’m funny), but the Poisonwood Bible is coated in rich themes and complex characters that spring at the touch.
The book juggles perspectives between the four daughters (in order of descending age): Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, with each of its four sections prefaced by a retrospective narration from their weary, wistful mother.
And remarkably, it does so effectively. Each child thinks, moves, and interacts in their own specific way. Rachel, 15, with her teenage superficiality. Her country speak of ‘oh jeez oh man’s is also peppered with constant malapropisms, and old-fashioned discrimination. Leah, and Adah, both 14 and gifted, identical but opposite. While Leah is athletic and outspoken, Adah is hemiplegic and mute: but dominates perspectives in a backwards, palindromic tongue with the almost-cadence of poetry. And the youngest, Ruth May. The brave and curious five-year-old with sweet, innocent dialogue, but startling moments of lucidity.
Reading the characters’ woven narratives is like watching a tree grow, its branches expanding and twisting with leaves. Slowly, their voices subtly change and shift as they mature and transform with their surroundings.
At the centerpiece of the novel, however, is Africa. Make no mistake, life in the Congo is harsh. The Prices struggle and suffer. They face threats unimaginable to them in the U.S.: malaria, tarantulas, parasites, snakes, ants, floods, starvation, clashing of beliefs and understanding, political instability, and ostracization. But with all its problems, life in the Congo is beautiful. You can climb trees in the Congo, tall ones. You can hunt for antelope, or bargain at the marketplace. Cast in a different light, those threats aren’t threats at all, just parts of life. The novel unveils a depth to Africa, rendered in breathtaking detail and clarity. It normalizes the culture, customs, and community of the Congo through the mouthpiece of the Prices, changing it from a flat, alien and almost abstract world into somewhere familiar, homey, and multi-layered. It tears down the conventional Western narrative of a pitiful, primitive, and almost shameful Africa, and replaces it with somewhere real.
The writing is also ridiculously good. Though the dense jungle is described vividly (the trees as ‘columns of slick, brindled bark’, with the ‘glide of a snake belly on branch’), I found that the most captivating imagery were of the abstract or commonplace, piled with phrases as easy and elegant as a flick of the wrist. An example is provided by Leah witnessing a sobering conversation, noting ‘Mother’s profile in the window turned into salt crystal, reflecting all light’. Another notes photographs splayed out on a table as ‘a tidepool of shiny color among the seashells on her coffee table.’
I know I’ve already thrown in an analogy, but at the risk of sounding pretentious, let me add in another. Reading the Poisonwood Bible is like slipping your hand into a stream and realizing it was actually just sheets of waving linen. The novel is layered, complex, rippling with all the nuance of reality but with the knowing finish of an artisan, hidden within the fibres of the fabric. Sometimes its turbulent, sometimes it isn’t.
The Poisonwood Bible will challenge your beliefs, fill you with emotion, and expand your world. If you have a heart, it will fill you with compassion and empathy for the unknown. And if that doesn’t convince you, read for Rachel, who will definitely win you over with her ‘feminine wilds’.

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