REVIEW: Flight Behaviour

Flight Behaviour

Barbara Kingsolver

Faber & Faber

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

Tiny Dellarobia Turnbow, with her head of fire and restless wandering heart and restless wondering brain, carries a heavy load – a fact her clunky name reveals amply.

In the story, she’s a woman handed a life she didn’t choose and against which she chafes, like a pack animal resenting not its load, but its thoughtless arrangement on its back. As a literary vehicle, she’s been assigned by Kingsolver to transport a range of complex, interwoven ideas.

The heroine does a fine, feisty job of both, and where she fails, it simply because too much has been asked of her.

That a lot will be expected of her is apparent on reading the blurb at the back of this well-loved American author’s eight novel. Flight Behaviour, the prospective reader is told, “takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change”.

Any novel that “takes on” a hot social or political subject is in danger of all kinds of things: of sermonising, of boring the reader, of subsuming a story plot or hammering it clumsily into a lecture, even of propaganda. I’m not sure Kingsolver niftily escapes all of these, but she does a competent enough job, one that is saved in great part by a very good story and one of the most likable protagonists in recent fiction.

Dellarobia, who is sharp and sassy, is married to Cub, who is kind, slow, overweight and utterly beholden to his pious, bossy farming parents Bear and Hester. The story’s heroine is a dutiful wife, mother and daughter, but she suffers from an itching restlessness which makes her fantasise about extra-marital dalliances.

“Life was just one long proposition they never saw coming,” is how the sheep in the field behind her house are described, a line perfectly suited for a woman who was robbed young of her parents, of opportunity and of freedom when she became pregnant in high school.

On a particular day, she pulls on an ill-fitting pair of boots – expensive, but tellingly second-hand and not quite her size – and hikes up the field into the slopes behind the family farm to indulge dangerously in a dalliance she has set up. In spite of the fact that the dalliance does not materialise she does not come back unscathed, having discovered a slope on the mountain where “something was wrong. Or just strange.” Trees draped in large clumps of something unrecognisable and a puzzling view over a valley where the trees “writhe”, until the sun comes out and the forest is set ablaze “with its own internal flame”.

This vision of beauty confuses and entrances her, stays her reckless inclinations and drives her back home to make peace with her unsatisfactory life.

However, her father-in-law has plans to cut down the trees in the forest to help the family through terrifying financial times, and Dellarobia – still not clear about what she saw that day – finds a gentle way to urge her lethargic husband to go into the valley. When he discovers the flaming forest, all hell breaks loose. He believes Dellarobia had a vision, that God Himself has come to intervene in family matters, and he announces in church one Sunday what he has seen.

What’s happening on the mountain is that orange Monarch butterflies have come to roost. They clump on trees, part of a seasonal mating and migration activity. This natural wonder becomes a local and then a national curiosity. Sightseers, eco-warriors and scientists descend on the small Appalachian town and the Turnbow farm.

And thence arises a story richly layered with wide variety of social issues: poverty versus wealth; privilege versus constraining lack of opportunity; ignorance and poor education versus knowledge that comes from being schooled in city schools and universities; religion versus science; climate change believers versus climate-change deniers.

Most of these large social issues are embedded delicately enough into the narrative, and the way they are observed is the witty fuel that keeps the reader motoring through. Kingsolver allows Dellarobia observations that are funny and exceptionally astute. On shearing day, some women from the community come to help the family to skirt the fresh fleeces: “They all attended Hester’s church, which Dellarobia viewed as a complicated pyramid scheme of moral debt and credit resting ultimately on the shoulders of the Lord, but rife with middle managers.”

As Kingsolver tells the story of the butterflies’ unusual flight behaviour – and it does feel as though the butterflies and the ecological disaster their appearance reveals, rather than the characters and their lives, are the story’s raison d’être – she allows Dellarobia to examine her own flight behaviour, a process which allows her to pupate and then to break out and spread her wings.

The first few chapters of this accomplished writer’s latest novel are taut and well-executed, funny and brimful of authentic, gritty characters. But the middle part – where Dellarobia becomes involved in the scientists’ work – the narrative buckles under the pressure to inform the reader, and turns over slowly while Kingsolver must fit in her various lessons and press upon the reader the urgency of the world’s decline. Later, Dellarobia’s story insists itself again, and the reader can finish with ease and enjoyment Flight Behaviour’s end.

In less capable hands, the book would have been bludgeoned entirely by its author’s mission to “take on” a contentious topic. Flight Behaviour is saved by Kingsolver’s talent.

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