Friday, December 14, 2012

Barbara Kingsolver's brilliant Flight Behavior

Barbara Kingsolver

 Stephanie Dowrick, writer and co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club, names Flight Behavior as her "Book of the Year"

It's a big thing to claim any novel, any book as a "book of the year". This year I have read some wonderful new books, some of which I have reviewed and highly praised here, and I have returned eagerly to others. But after a slow start - picking it up and putting it down again more than once (the moment for reading simply wasn't right) - my book of the year is, without doubt, Barbara Kingsolver's quite exceptional Flight Behavior.

Kingsolver is a writer I have long admired and learned from. Her Poisonwood Bible is one of my all-time favourites, but I liked her clever, widely praised The Lacuna somewhat less, and was a little cautious approaching this one - her eighth. I need not have been. As the novel opens we meet Dellarobia Turnbow, a young, highly intelligent but poorly educated working-class mother whose Tennessee life and dull, predictable marriage are feeling increasingly constrictive, even unbearable. She loves her children. She mourns the baby she lost at only 18, but the poverty and lack of choice that is her reality and that of everyone around her is increasingly hard for her to tolerate.

In search of distraction, change or even meaning she is prepared to risk her safety and marriage for a fling with a man even younger than herself. She feels like a victim of her own self-created obsession, common sense long gone. Yet on the way up the wooded mountain behind her husband's family farm, wearing second-hand boots that were not made for these harsh conditions (any more than Dellarobia seems to be), she comes across an extraordinary sight, a vision of millions of monarch butterflies.

These butterflies are described in a glorious, never-never-boring detail in Kingsolver's novel, and they and their fate become so central to the novel that they are a character in themselves. But that first glimpse of them seems surreal to Dellarobia. They shock her. They literally turn her in her tracks. They change her mind and, very soon, their presence - and its cause and consequences - will also change her life. 

If the changes in Dellarobia's life seem momentous, then the climate changes that have driven the butterflies from their usual home in Mexico to southern Appalachia are momentous on a global scale. And that's one reason why I am so passionate about this novel. It is highly polemical. It truly matters. It is also utterly readable, engaging, sometimes very funny, and often almost unbearably sad.

Kingsolver was a scientist before she became a novelist. Now she is both. She wants us to understand the consequences of humanity's perverse ignorance and greed in our treatment, our appalling treatment of the planet on which we - and countless other species including monarch butterflies - entirely depend. But she wants us to see this and understand it through characters who care increasingly, and about whom we will also care increasingly. (We do. We do.) She wants us to understand their ignorance - and our own - and also understand that it is not an end point. Or it need not be.

There are many characters to grab and compel your attention here, from the initially unlikeable Hester, Dellarobia's mother-in-law; her well-meaning, passive husband, Cub; her glorious children, Preston and Cordelia; to the scientists, and especially the deeply engaging Obama-like Dr Ovid Byron who sets up his observation posts at the Turnbow farm to witness what may be the demise of a species that he has spent a lifetime studying.  We are also dragged into the agonies of indecision as Bear Turnbow, Hester's husband and Cub's dad, wrestles with his care for his family land and his desperate financial need to tear down the very trees where the butterflies have landed and sell their family inheritance off to loggers.
The unmissable Flight Behavior/Behaviour
Late in the novel we learn that in their native Mexican habitats it was believed that each butterfly represents a dead baby's soul, taking flight in the form of this insect of astonishing beauty. There is huge "soul" in this novel; massive themes deftly, subtly and with consummate skills leading us to echo and witness the questions that truly matter: “What was the use of saving a world that had no soul left in it. Continents without butterflies, seas without coral reef…What if all human effort amounted basically to saving a place for ourselves to park?”

Barbara Kingsolver has clearly been questioned often about whether fiction can, should be, is "entitled to be", political or polemical. Her answer: "Fiction has enormous power. It’s funny—people talk about political fiction or apolitical fiction. That’s nonsense. I think all fiction has a point of view, and all fiction has the power to create empathy for the theoretical stranger. It has the power to bring the reader inside the mind of another person. Only fiction can do that. Journalism can’t do that. Journalism describes from the outside. Photography describes from the outside, but in fiction, really, you put down your life. You enter the mind of another person and you inherit her children and her financial problems and all these things, you inhabit them for a while. That’s an audacious to do to another person. So I try to use that power as well as I can."

As a life-long passionate, needy reader, I believe Kingsolver has used that power brilliantly. I love the novel. I love its characters. I care about the issues. I am better informed for having read it; I am also moved, touched, and deeply, deeply inspired.

Read more:

You can buy Flight Behavior through our bookstore links above right. This supports the Universal Heart Network and Book Club through a small % returned to us. Please share your enthusiasms, comments, ideas here. We love to hear from you!


  1. I also had mixed feelings about Lacuna and might not have put this on my reading list, but the review is very persuasive. If there is any 'bright side' to climate change it is that we are so urgently called to enlarge our connection to the world. We don't just live in a house or a town, we live on a planet, and a writer who can bring this home to us through the subtleties of story rather than through politics and polemics is speaking for our times. Thanks for the lucid and generous spirited review.

  2. I am a big fan of Kingsolver and am looking forward to reading her latest. Glad you liked it and endorsed it for fans of the author!