By Barbara Kingsolver, Faber and Faber, 440pp. £18.99
FICTION:SHE WRITES BIG BOOKS about big subjects. The Poisonwood Bible, perhaps her best-known novel, was an exposé of the hubris and stupidity of American imperialism in Africa. Her last, The Lacuna, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2010, was an impressively laconic but moving evisceration of American anti-communist witch-hunting. Her new novel, Flight Behaviour, is an impassioned story about climate change. On the important social and political questions of our time Barbara Kingsolver is clearly right-on, which is a way of saying that, humanly speaking, her heart is in the right place. And she can write superbly.
So what’s not to like? Perhaps the awkward fact that novels and noble convictions aren’t necessarily the best of partners. And in Flight Behaviour Kingsolver does indulge her preacher side.
On a bleak mountain in Appalachia something marvellous is happening. It’s seen first, in the manner of an apparition, by Dellarobia, on her way to a furtive assignation with the local “telephone man”. Dellarobia is fed up with her life. With her nice but slow-witted husband, Cub; her humdrum days on the farm as mother to two children; her hostile mother-in-law, Hester; and never having enough money. The sexy telephone man is a diversion from all this, disguised as love, hopefully.
It’s winter, a grey and oddly tepid and sodden winter in Appalachia. But the mountain is aglow, lit with golden light. The light is coming from the orange markings of millions of butterflies, flitting among the trees where no butterflies have been seen before. The wondrous scene grants Dellarobia a change of heart. She abandons ideas of the telephone man and goes back home to try to make the best of things.
Gradually the presence of the butterflies brings about a general change.
Sightseers tramp up the mountain, TV news teams descend, New Age pilgrims camp out. And an environmentalist, Dr Ovid Byron, arrives with a bunch of students to study the phenomenon. But it’s in Dellarobia that the biggest changes occur. Uneducated but smart, she was knocked off course in high school by early pregnancy and the obligatory marriage to Cub. She’s a frustrated intellectual, an academic waiting to happen. Ovid, the scientist, acknowledges Dellarobia’s potential where others, like Hester, have resented it, or, like Cub, feared it. He sets up his trailer lab in the farmyard, and within a few weeks Dellarobia is observing in the field, peering into microscopes and compiling rather complex butterfly data. She’s even briefly a TV icon of butterfly bliss, which is how the public wants to see the golden hordes.
Kingsolver tries very painstakingly to make Dellarobia a rounded character.
She has a high-school buddy called Dovey, and the two of them goof around, in time-honoured buddy fashion, with smartphones and hair straighteners. She has her weaknesses: a propensity to fall for the well-turned muscles of any passing man and the smoking of cigarettes. She has low self-esteem and sees herself as having thrown in her lot with her hillbilly in-laws. She can be mean to Hester. We’re meant to admire Dellarobia, though, struggling against the odds. She’s an excellent mother, never forgetting to check on the kids, Preston and Cordelia, not smoking in front of them, and nurturing Preston’s sweetly old-fashioned interest in nature and books.