November 9, 2012 7:34 pm

Nature without nurture

A novel of big questions and restless isolation in rural America
A sheep farm illustration by Izhar Cohen©Izhar Cohen

Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver, Faber £18.99/Harper $20.99, 436 pages

 

Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel opens with a pretty redhead setting out for a tryst in a hunting shack. Twenty-nine years earlier, the redhead’s mother named her for a misremembered Bible character, a portent of compromised ideals to come. Dellarobia Turnbow’s life on a failing sheep farm is sad, very sad. Like her neighbour’s shrivelled peach trees, Dellarobia’s dreams couldn’t survive the relentless rain. She was pregnant at 17 and now looks after sheep, two kids, a slow husband – and did I mention the sheep? Dellarobia finds herself hiking up a mountain trail to throw her life away.

For vanity’s sake, Dellarobia has left her glasses at home. Therefore she’s not quite sure what she’s seeing when she encounters a fluke of nature, an otherworldly orange flame: “a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone” – that shapes the story to come. And so we ask, along with Dellarobia, what does this marvel mean? There, on her in-laws’ property, Dellarobia sees a forested valley that recalls the Biblical image of the burning bush.

Barbara Kingsolver lives on a smallholding in the rural US, and is on home territory in this book. The plot jumps into action and reaction as Dellarobia’s miraculous vision – it is a horde of butterflies – surges into the public domain. Almost overnight, the news is online, aestheticised, analysed, overwrought. It becomes the purview of both religion and science, attracting a local pastor, Bobby Ogle, who believes the event is a prophetic sign, and Dr Ovid Byron, an entomologist who arrives to study the ramifications of climate change. And let’s not forget Tina Ultner (“a woman with slender everything”), a perfect ghoul of a reporter. Tina does not care that she is rewriting history as a cheap entertainment piece.

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In this scenario, Dellarobia is cast as auburn-haired eye candy in a fetching sweater, soon to go viral as a photo-shopped internet phenomenon: a “spiritualised” image of Botticelli’s Venus.

How to interpret the uninterpretable? How do we know what we think we know? Epistemology is a favourite theme of Kingsolver’s, and here she tackles it with a force that looks suspiciously like doom. Hope dwindles as researchers, reporters, ecotourists, and protesters complicate the plot with assertions that it is not too late to save the day, even as the day is swept away by things we can no longer control. In one scene Dellarobia, fighting for the life of a premature lamb, spins the animal frantically by its hind feet to free its breath. Will the lamb breathe again? Yes: but only with intervention. The implication is that we must change our world before it’s too late.

The plot shifts abruptly, over and over, nudging forward our idea of what kind of book this is. Now it is a tale of epic lack, like Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939); now of gendered unhappiness, like Kate Chopin’s feminist novel The Awakening (1899); now of hubris punished by flood, like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). As with every Kingsolver novel, we have the uncomfortable sense that the story is bigger than we want it to be. As readers, we like to cheer on Dellarobia in conventional terms: “Honey, ditch those sheep, take your kids, and move to a town with a community college!” But self-reinvention is never easy – that is, predictable.

Flight Behaviour traces not how we take flight, but how we adapt. Kingsolver makes savvy use of her biologist’s background in theoretical population genetics. (Literature needs more Tissuemizers, Mettler balances and centrifuges.) Ovid insists that his role as a scientist is not to judge but to observe and record. Kingsolver has said the same thing about her role as novelist. Disingenuous? Yes. Even the highly trained entomologist can’t help but grieve for a natural system that “looks terminal to me”. Kingsolver’s novels do far more than observe and record. They provoke us to ask: do we look terminal to her?

In Flight Behaviour, Kingsolver does what she does best. She specialises in presenting characters who wander through flawed communities in restless isolation, fuelled by endlessly deferred desires, reacting against landscapes that seem as intentional as the characters. Fans who recall the African ants of The Poisonwood Bible (1998) expect pitched battle, and they won’t be disappointed. Dellarobia remembers her English teacher summarising the great themes of literature as “man against nature”. Now the theme is nature against man.

 

Wildly vacillating interpretations of natural phenomena, represented here by Ovid’s scientific method and Bobby’s heartfelt faith, beg questions of agency and responsibility, denial and belief. What’s surprising is Kingsolver’s suggestion that the questions themselves are dangerous if they distract us from the raw reality of “feeding tiny answers to vast demands”.

Sounds like a downer, right? Not so. Be prepared to be spun round by the hindquarters, like the preemie lamb. If it needs doing, nobody does it better than Kingsolver.

Rhoda Janzen teaches English and creative writing at Hope College, Michigan. She is the author of ‘Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?’ (Grand Central Publishing)

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