Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a book I hold dear. It’s a brilliantly crafted, hugely evocative and superbly plotted novel that’s taunt, thrilling, sad and thought-provoking. It’s a book I often think about and frequently recommend to people.
Despite my love of The Poisonwood Bible, I never felt the urge to read The Lacuna, Kingsolver’s Orange Prize winning novel, but my interest in her was sparked again when her latest, Flight Behaviour, was shortlisted for the same, although now differently named, prize.
Where The Poisonwood Bible was tight, gripping and powerful, Flight Behaviour is slack, rambling and, at times, frankly, dull. There are flashes of Kingsolver’s brilliance that would have shone so much brighter if the deadwood around it had been pruned; I read the novel with an imaginary red marker pen, mentally crossing out all those erroneous words, paragraphs, even chapters.
Ostensibly, Flight Behaviour is about climate change, a huge subject so far largely avoided by novelist. On the evidence of Flight Behaviour it’s not surprising. Kingsolver struggles to grapple with the subject while also balancing characterisation and a plot. The result is like holding onto a balloon during a hurricane, she can’t keep hold of the structure or characters as they repeatedly blow off course.
Kingsolver shouldn’t have been afraid of her subject. The climate change scenes, particularly those featuring sexy scientist Ovid Bryon as a mouthpiece and Kingsolver’s working class protagonist Dellarobia as translator, are by far the most fascinating. They are meticulously researched and well handled, as they are fed back to the reader in easy to understand, but never patronising ways.
But the characters, in particular Dellarobia, the teenage bride with a brain bigger than her ambitions, rather make a nuisance of themselves.
The novel opens with Dellarobia witnessing what she takes to be a ‘ball of flame’ as she attempts to escape her dreary life in pursuit of a handsome bit on the side. The phenomenon sends her back to her to drudgery – her dumb husband and two demanding children – but the ‘ball of flame’, which turns out to be thousands of lost and confused monarch butterflies, changes her life in a far more dramatic way. The butterflies presenence in Dellarobia’s back garden puts her in the media spotlight, while her own life is put under the microscope along with the countless dead insects. Dellarobia and the butterflies must both reboot their internal sat navs and find a new course.
Dellarobia is Kingsolver’s weak spot. She’s a bright, ambitious woman (we’re told) who was born into a poor family in a deprived rural area. She was hit hard by bad luck – her parents died, she got pregnant, was forced to marry the father (sofa-bound Cub, who she’s still married to), the baby died. Now she has two children by Cub and a god-bothering mother-in-law with the emotional depth of a puddle.
Kingsolver has rightly identified that the working class are largely ignored, chastised or mocked in the climate change debate. In Kingsolver’s Tennessee rural community, God is responsible for weather patterns and strange butterfly phenomenons. Poor farmers, whose crops have been wrecked by unseasonal weather, haven’t been taught by those that have the power to educate (the media come in for a lot of blame in Flight Behaviour for their irresponsible attitude towards climate change and the poor) that selling their forests to pay their immediate bills will only exacerbate their problems as well as the world’s.
It’s a commendable approach, and Kingsolver makes some very valid points, best summed up by Dellarobia when she’s asked by one of the environmentalists that land on their doorstep about her carbon footprint. It’s tiny; she buys all her clothes second-hand, doesn’t own a computer, has never flown. But Kingsolver never feels comfortable writing about the poor rural community and she frequently trips over herself in a bid not to offend which leads to a good many contradictions and some rambling, unnecessary chapters where I felt repeatedly hit over the head with Valid Points.
Dellarobia is a confusing and muddled character. There’s a huge disparity between what we’re shown of her character and how she’s described by others, a fault that runs through the novel as a whole – there is far too much telling, and not enough showing. As a reader I hate being force-fed characters, I want them to take take shape in front of my eyes not be bossed into being told what they’re like. When Dellarobia gives up smoking, her mother-in-low, Hester, comments that she knew she would as Dellarobia always succeeds when she puts her mind to it. Does she? Because all I can see is a woman who married a man she didn’t love and has been content to keep house for him and his children for the past decade while complaining about it and getting through by having crushes on inappropriate men.
Kingsolver has real power in her writing and has proven she’s capable of true literary brilliance There felt that there was a great novel waiting to hatch from Flight Behaviour, but it was washed away by an over-elaborate plot that was rushed, confused and unfocused.
by Suzanne Elliott