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Surveying all the monarchs
on 9 February 2013
"Flight behaviour" is wordplay to cover both the orange monarch butterflies deflected from their usual migration patterns by the effects of climate change, and a Tennessee farmer's wife, symbolically also flame-haired, seeking to escape from the trap of her marriage to a kind but dull husband still ruled by his domineering parents.
Although her small daughter Cordelia has been nicknamed "Cordie", Dellarobia does not shorten her own distinctive name. An ill-judged attempt at adultery is averted when she is amazed by the sight of a lake of fire which proves to be great clusters of butterflies clinging to tree trunks on the wooded slopes above her home. My interest was hooked when I realised that the incredible details of these insects and their life cycles are based on fact, the author being a trained biologist with a mission to inform us through fiction.
The arc of the overall story is strong, and Barbara Kingsolver explores some interesting themes, such as the varying attitudes to the butterflies when a team of scientists come to study them. The locals, for instance, tend to reject climate change because the popular media play it down, but the strongly religious community feels that the butterflies may have some special significance, even to the extent of questioning the right of Dellarobia's father-in-law's to earn much-needed cash from felling the trees in which the butterflies have chosen to winter.
"The Poisonwood Bible" is a hard act for the author to follow, but I found "Flight Behaviour" hard-going, partly because it often gets bogged down in detail and long-windedness, crying out for a good edit. Although she is capable of sharp, funny dialogue and powerful descriptions, too often the prose grated on me - clunky and folksy in a way I had not expected, although I wondered whether it was intentional to convey a sense of a traditional "hillbilly" community, resistant to change. So, my four stars are for an original and thought-provoking storyline rather than the quality of the writing which often disappointed me.