Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber and Faber – November, 2012)
Flight Behaviour, the latest from Barbara Kingsolver, appropriately begins in a sort of Eden; in the dense forest that surrounds an Appalachian farm. Through the trees comes Dellarobia, on her way to meet a man with whom she hopes to have an adulterous affair and knowing that, in so doing, she will jeopardise her ‘good life’ with her husband and children. It is on her way there that she finds herself enraptured by a phenomenal sight:
The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiraled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky.
The forest on fire (read, an Old Testament burning bush) is in fact a huge cloud of Monarch butterflies that has descended on her farm. Distracted as she is by this sight she does not meet her lover but instead finds her life transformed in other ways. News of the butterflies, described as ‘the inside of beauty’, spreads. The species had previously never ventured so far north for winter and the butterflies and Dellarobia herself become an internet hit. An entire cast of hangers-on, fanatics and naysayers turn up in the town—religious fundamentalist announce it a miracle, environmental activists hop onto the bandwagon and of course onto the scene comes the charming Ovid Byron, an etymologist. He announces this ‘miracle’ a side-effect of climate change. It is not only not a miracle but a sign of dark times ahead. He enlists Dellarobia to help him collect evidence and make sense of the event, and in so doing she begins to value her own knowledge of her environment and surroundings.
The environment is the obvious manifesto of this book and for the most part it is organic to the narrative. Only on a couple of occasions did I feel I was on the receiving end of an uncomfortable sermon. Class issues are intertwined with environmentalism. It is on class that I feel Kingsolver was slightly less successful, though she does have some points to make and does so well. For example, there is a scene in which Dellarobia and her family are given overly-earnest advice—not to leave computers on standby and to recycle whatever they use. Dellarobia points out that they have no computer and always recycle everything, though this is through necessity rather than some high-minded middle class enviro-drive. There is an acidity to Kingsolver’s wit as she describes an environmental activist explaining to Dellarobia that she and her family need to ‘fly less’. They have never been on a plane and can barely afford the fuel for their truck much less fly anywhere.
The poverty is grinding and there are times where the novel does suffer a little from ‘Hicksville’ overload. There are somewhat over-laboured scenes in which we are taken on shopping trips and the extent of their poverty is counted out cent by cent. These are certainly well-observed sequences but some editing might have been useful. The community is a place where birthday gifts must be bought in a dollar store—at times the detail felt gratuitous, particularly as Dellarobia’s response to the vastly expensive scientific equipment that arrives with Ovid Byron is enough of an insight into both of their worlds.
Dellarobia’s husband Cub is endlessly described in all his simple-minded ignorant rural farmer ways. This is not to say that Kingsolver is ever condescending or inappropriate in dealing with her subjects, far from it, for the most part the language and characters do not feel exploitative as they might well have done in less experienced hands. Cub’s mother Hester is well-drawn as a manipulative small-minded woman. But there is, at times, some tediousness to it all.
Dellarobia herself is a good modern heroine. As readers we are steered through the less successful aspects of the book by deep sympathy for her personal predicament. She is wonderfully and intimately drawn with a compelling depth, and her flame red hair is the perfect visual hook.
This book takes on great big hulking themes. Everything about the book is biblical; the fight of good vs. evil (who embodies either of these shifts from perspective to perspective). Dellarobia has her own turmoil and guilt to deal with over her near infidelity which led to these strange events. Religion vs. science, urban vs. rural; there is a lot going on and the fact that Kingsolver holds everything together as masterfully and beautifully as she does is testament to her power as a storyteller.
The biblical tone obviously adds to the sense of apocalypse. Not only do we begin with the burning bush but there are biblical floods—such that the locals are happy to invoke Noah. This is an apocalyptic novel that asks important questions about survival: personal, financial, planetary, though—written through the eyes and heart of Dellarobia—it never feels as though we are trapped in Hollywood blockbuster.
In spite of my misgivings (and given the scope and sweep of the novel they are few) Kingsolver’s book is a page-turner, backed up by solid issues and layered sentences which frequently offer up breathtaking images. Her sentences themselves are frequently quite beautiful but it is a book that is not only enjoyable to read—there is also much for aspiring writers to learn on how to balance style and substance in contemporary fiction.
Post Script: It is not often that I mention the cover and physical proportions of a book, and the dust jacket though striking and lovely is not what took me by surprise. Rather it was on removing it that I noticed that the book, dressed in plain black cloth, has the weight and look of a Bible. I am not sure if this is an accident of design. I hope not.