HIKING up a hill on her way to a long-planned extra-marital tryst, Dellarobia Turnbow, the protagonist of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behaviour, has a thought.
Faber and Faber £18.99
“A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” This impulsiveness, and the flame of excitement that comes with it, is a recurring motif that wends its way through the book as we enter the world of a farming family in the Appalachian countryside on whom it seems some sort of rapture has indeed arrived.
Kingsolver’s novel is an examination of climate change, belief and what it means to be uneducated in today’s fast-paced, Google-dominated world. What stops Dellarobia – a whip-smart unhappily married mother of two whose main focus in life is the drudgery of full-time motherhood – from going ahead with her adulterous intentions that day is the discovery of what she believes at first to be a “lake of fire”, bursting out of the forest hillside. It ignites inside her a fear, an energy, and a realisation that she should not, after all, throw that good life away.
Trotting back down the hill, away from infidelity, she wonders if it is the work of God, or something else entirely. Before long the burning mountain is revealed to be a natural phenomenon – millions of monarch butterflies which, in what is probably a disastrous contrast to their normal winter migratory pattern, have landed on the Turnbow family land in Feathertown, a poor community in rural Tennessee.
This is land that has recently been earmarked for logging by the financially strapped Turnbows, but its new status as a site of scientific interest – and, for others, the place of a miracle – means it suddenly becomes a place of pilgrimage for people far and wide. When Ovid Byron, a dashing research scientist, and his team arrive to investigate why the butterflies are here, Dellarobia finds herself energised, intrigued and eventually involved in the work they are conducting.
Kingsolver has said that the book is partly a reflection of her move back to southern Appalachia, where she was brought up, in 2004. Certainly she clearly evokes the misery of impoverished rural life in modern America and paints a picture of a Bible Belt still dominated by churchgoing, albeit one that’s had to adapt to 21st century life (the Turnbow’s church has a cafe and a games room where those who wish to sip coffee or play draughts during the sermon can do so while watching the pastor on a live video link).
Some of the most beautiful passages in the book examine Dellarobia’s sometimes tortured relationship with her two children, Cordie and Preston. She loves them both dearly, yet she knows they also tie her to the family she has married into yet still feels an outsider from. And they keep her chained to the bleak and repetitive daily toil that is the lot of a cash-strapped stay-at-home mum. When she takes son Preston, a bright, shy child fascinated with nature, to see the butterflies for himself she describes it as being as exciting as a “night out on the town”. She marvels at her daughter’s ability to make excruciating noise with every toy she has, and argues with her husband, the cowardly and appropriately named Cub, over $2 Christmas presents.
Indeed it is chain-smoking, wise-cracking Dellarobia who is the star of this novel, likeable and flawed, clever yet unsure of herself, an unlikely heroine who is ultimately led towards a choice between the known, and a path towards greater fulfilment. This is a poignant novel, funny and poetic, whose message about climate change is timely and true, and cannot be ignored.
As Kingsolver observes of the butterflies themselves: “If fight or flight is the choice, it’s way easier to fly.” «
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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