Flight Behaviour is the 5th stand-alone novel by Barbara Kingsolver. In the Appalachian Mountains above her home, eastern Tennessee farm wife and mother of two, Dellarobia Turnbow is about to take a step that will change her unsatisfactory life forever when she is arrested by a vision of something she has never before encountered. What seems like a miracle is, however, threatened by her father-in-law's decision to allow the mountain to be clear-felled by a logging company. Those who start reading and think this is the formulaic righteous woman plus scientist battling against hick farmers and loggers to save endangered species will need to think again! Of all the things I predicted about this novel at the beginning, the only one I got right was that it is very, very good. I was assured of that in just the first few pages by prose like "How they admired their own steadfast lives. Right up to the day when hope in all its versions went out of stock, including the crummy discount brands, and the heart had just one instruction left: run." and "Whoever was in charge of the weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty-white sky like a lousy sheet-rock job." I also loved "His moustache made two curved lines around the sides of his mouth like parentheses, as if everything he might say would be very quiet, and incidental." This novel has a plot that didn't go where I expected; the characters, too, surprised me when I thought I had their measure. Kingsolver skilfully conveys the desperation of poverty in everyday life and its effect on education, life choices and what people come to believe. She also highlights the importance of the manner in which scientists convey their message to the general public. This novel had me laughing out loud (especially at Dovey's church marquee sayings), choking up, giving a cheer (for Facebook of all things!), moved to caring about the fate of certain insects and thinking about many things: climate change, poverty, the decline of craftsmanship in the face of mass production, the cost of research, the disposable society and the increasing waste of goods. Kingsolver manages to make a huge amount of information about lepidoptery, sheep farming and lambing, global warming and the environment, easy to assimilate by incorporating it into this wonderfully uplifting tale. Her passion for the environment and our role in climate change is apparent in every paragraph. A brilliant, thought-provoking read, probably her best yet!
Barbara Kingsolver writes beautiful measured novels and Flight Behaviour is no exception. Though slow out of the blocks, Kingsolver gradually binds its threads together to form an utterly compelling whole.
Dellarobia Turnbow steps out from her back door intent on wrecking her marriage. For ten years she has lived a humdrum existence on her husband's family farm. She is heading for a secret tryst with a young telephone engineer, but in small town Tennessee can anything be kept secret? On her way she is stopped in her tracks by a natural wonder, a valley of fire. She returns to her home, glad of the wake up call, and her narrow escape from infidelity.
The Turnbow farm is struggling to survive. The recession has hit hard, wiping out the farm's meager profits. When her father-in-law decides he is going to allow a logging company to decimate his land's trees Dellarobia feels obliged to speak out. She exhorts her husband, Cub, to take look over the land. When he does he discovers the same unnatural wonder as his wife. Convinced that Dellarobia has had a vision, Cub blurts out in church what they have seen. A wondrous sight on private land suddenly becomes public property.
Flight Behaviour is about so many things it's hard to know where to start. At its heart is the interaction between three distinct groups of people. The media, who want to present the phenomenon in a way that will generate as many ratings as possible, the scientists, who want to present only the facts, and the farmers, who must do what's needed to preserve their livelihoods. Dellarobia sits in two camps. She is a farmer's wife, reliant on the farm turning a profit, but she yearns for more. Can she use her brush with science to kick-start a life arrested by an unwanted teenage pregnancy?
The book is filled with fabulous beauty. The wilderness and Dellarobia's discovery are described in rich detail. Counterpoint to the beauty is the heartache and harsh reality of lives spent hovering around the breadline. The World's media is often disparaging of Bible Belt Republicans, but Kingsolver's depiction of them is compassionate and heartfelt.
As a father who, fortunately, has never had to worry about where my family's next meal is coming from, I found Dellarobia's struggle to feed her children particularly affecting. There is one section where she and Cub are trying to find Christmas presents, that left me emotionally wrung out. It encapsulates the plight of countless families in the world's richest economy.
Ultimately, this novel is about the fragility of existence. Whether it be a farm, a marriage or an entire ecosystem, continued survival is a fine balance of uncountable variables. Even the most innocuous changes could mean extinction. Flight Behaviour is an understated novel, rich in language and themes. It's by no means a page turner but it is a powerful meditation on twenty-first century morals and the difficulties of balancing what is best for the planet against what is best for humanity. Flight Behaviour sees Kingsolver at the height of her powers and once again she has delivered an authentic meaningful and compelling read.
In the interests of reviewer clarity, I feel obliged to point out that my copy of this book was a review copy provided by the publisher.
on 24 May 2013
I have read every novel and all the anthologies of shorter work by Barbara Kingsolver but I couldn't get into this one.
There are the usual patches of vivid description and good insight into character and motivation. There are long extended metaphors of natural processes and evolutionary forces with their unforeseen consequences that are apt and well chosen; but all these don't add up to a great book.
The tale digressed and the structure became slack, making me reluctant to return to the tale. I could understand most of the folksy American vernacular but the mangled slangy speech and overuse of abbreviations like PBJ ( presumably peanut butter jelly) was tedious. The author has tried with her usual generous spirit to render the lives of disadvantaged people sympathetically. There is a palpable sense of her desperation in the face of an ignorant society slowly sawing itself off from its life support systems. She makes strong points concerning the dumbing down of the media and its misrepresentation of science. Interestingly, she is quite generous to the church,recognising its place as a bastion of a rural community without adequate social services.
She is amusing about the fatuous belief systems of the religious community while respecting the kindness and altruism of the pastor.
I'm sorry that the register of much of the language grated on my ear . Banal lives accurately rendered are banal.
I was pleased to finish this book. I persevered because I respect the author. I can't fully define why I wasn't more engaged. Perhaps it is because the author has an agenda that her characters must serve and it impairs their autonomy.
"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.
on 29 October 2013
Flight Behaviour had been on my must read list for months before I finally got round to reading it. Despite having really enjoyed both Poisonwood Bible and Lacuna there was something about this that just did not grip me. Eventually it was chosen by my bookgroup and I had to get going. I left it late and found myself burning dinner whilst I stood in the kitchen gripped by the unfolding tale of this most unlikely heroine. The ironing pile grew as I read on to find out what happened to her after she turned back from committing adultery and it was nothing I could have imagined. The expected story simply is not told here. Instead we are led to a bigger world and a smaller one. A world of amazing fragility and beauty that Kingsolver describes in breathtaking detail. And alongside this a small, grey world of limited horizons against which Dellarobia is chafing.
I really enjoyed the way in which every character, with the possible exception of the TV journalists, is sympathetically portrayed. We see them all at first through Dellarobia's tired and resentful eyes. And we see them as she sees them - petty, unwelcoming and prejudiced. But as she grows in confidence and wonder she changes and her relationships with others change too. Not for Kingsolver the easy resolution of all tension but Dellarobia's growing connectedness with the world includes a connectedness with the people around her. She sees how their world has restricted them as well, the sorrows they have endured and not shared, the dreams they have laid aside. And as she does her own determination to build a better world for herself and her children grows stronger.
Small town America seems often to be mocked and I expected that the portrayal of the church, churchgoers and the pastor would conform to type. I had forgotten Kingsolver's respect for what she terms 'generous Christianity' and the Pastor is allowed to be generous and genuine within the context of his church community. The eventual revelations about the Pastor are just one more example of how she tells the unexpected story and asks us to wonder and welcome rather than belittle and berate. The literary riches of the Bible are also shown to be part of Dellarobia's personal linguistic repertore. Phrases from the psalms, stories from the Old Testament, the whole leitmotif of creation and particularly the Flood permeate the novel. This is not done to shore up any particular understanding of Christianity it simply reflects a shared Bible based culture; shared at least in terms of familiarity with stories and prayers if not in terms of belief and actions.
One of my favourite scenes is when Dellarobia is visited by a man who is trying to raise awareness of the need to cut back on energy use and live more simply. The gulf in understanding and lifestyle between the well meaning Green citizen and the struggling small town farmer is shown to be almost unbridgeable. It's a painfully funny scene which gently mocks many of the very people who may be drawn to her book, including me.
Flight Behaviour is long but I found it gripping from beginning to end. It's true that Kingsolver seems very keen to instruct her readers in the perils of climate change, our personal responsiblity for it, its impact on wildlife, habitats and humans but she does so in a way that I found utterly engaging. Whether it is through beautiful authorial descriptions, Dellarobia's observations or her son's questionning of the visiting scientist, it is always appropriate and interesting. The narrative twists and character developments and in particular the unusually respectful portrayal of her children, Cordie and Preston, all add to the overall enjoyment of this life-enhancing novel.
Barbara Kingsolver, Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, has written a powerful message about the consequences of climate change with her latest novel 'Flight Behaviour'. Set in present day rural Appalachia, the novel's main protagonist is Dellarobia Turnbow, a young, bright and attractive mother of two small children who married when she fell pregnant at seventeen. Dellarobia feels stifled in her marriage to her husband, Cub, an unadventurous young man who works resignedly on his family's failing farm. Although Dellarobia loves her children, she considers being a stay-at-home mum the "loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself."
One autumn day, after a summer of heavy rains, Dellarobia throws caution to the wind and struggles up a slippery mountain track to secretly meet up in the woods with a young man she has developed an obsession for. But the meeting never takes place because before Dellarobia arrives at her destination, she sees what she initially believes to be a lake of fire with every tree blazing - but when there is no heat, she decides the bright orange glow must be some sort of vision or warning. Described by her mother-in-law as: "a 911 Christian; in the event of an emergency, call the Lord" Dellarobia is initially reluctant to share her vision, but when she discovers that her husband's family are selling the land to loggers to help keep the farm afloat, she encourages them to go up to the woods so they can see for themselves that something unusual is happening. Well, there is something very unusual happening, for fluttering amongst the trees are millions of orange Monarch butterflies which, we later learn, have been diverted from their usual destination of Mexico by the effects of pollution and climate change. (No spoilers here - we learn this early on in the novel).
At first the 'Bible-belt' Turnbows and their neighbours, encouraged by the town's pastor, see this as a miracle of sorts, some even viewing it as a lucrative tourist attraction; but when a research team arrives headed up by the attractive Ovid Byron, the dangers of climate change are really brought home - if not to all of the characters in the story, then certainly to the reader. When Byron notices Dellarobia and her natural intelligence and curiosity, she is hired to help with the project, throwing her into a confrontation with her family, her town, her church and, ultimately, the wider world.
Although I did not initially find Dellarobia an entirely appealing heroine, I did find her an interesting character: spirited, self-deprecating, with some cynical and amusing views on her husband's family and their neighbours and I felt her appeal grew as I watched her undergo a metamorphosis and a late coming of age during the course of the story. Barbara Kingsolver, a scientist before she was an author, writes convincingly and lucidly about the dangers of pollution and climate change, enabling the reader to easily absorb the worrying and frightening possibility of the collapse of the world's eco-system. I recently read an interview with the author where she stated that she didn't want to write a trivial novel, she doesn't tackle easy subjects, and she didn't want to waste the reader's time; well Barbara Kingsolver definitely hasn't tackled an easy subject here; it's not trivial, and she certainly hasn't wasted my time.
on 17 January 2013
I live in Africa and The Poison Wood Bible remains one of the best novels I have read. I was very keen to read this new work of Kingsolver's but about 1/4 way through began to get frustrated. The book needs a thorough edit. One gets the strong impression it was a rough first draft. There are far too many unnecessary and detailed descriptions - information that has little or nothing to do with the main plot . This only serves to distract ( in my case really irritate) the reader from a what could have been an excellent story. The heroine becomes less and less plausible as a character as the book progresses and, however much Kingsolver tries to bury her objective ( i.e educate about some of the more subtle impacts of climate change that will affect us all) it still comes out more as a lecture and not a piece of fiction. Very disappointing.
on 14 June 2013
When an author has written a book as good as The Poisonwood Bible, it's really tough to maintain those heights. The Lacuna got close and I think Flight Behaviour just about made it. Its not the sort of book you have to read in one sitting, but Barbara Kingsolver's prose is so rich and meaningful that I frequently found myself doubling back to read a page again for fear of missing anything.
Another real plus for me in this book was the central character, Dellarobia. So many novels have a main character who is untroubled by pressures of time or money and able to pursue a course of action at a whim. Not so Dellarobia - rather a very human character, subject to the budgetary and time pressures of farming and kids.
All in all a great book and in many ways a fable for our times - knocking on the door of my all time top ten.
on 19 January 2014
This was our book club monthly read for July and having read The Poisonwood Bible for book club, I knew it wasn't going to be an easy read.
One of the first things that put me off this book was when I started reading and my Kindle told me it was going to take just over 14 hours to read. I read on average an hour an evening with more at the weekend - this did not fill me with hope for a quick read! A hard slog more like!
In the first few pages we meet Dellarobia wandering off to meet her secret lover but instead she discovers the mountainside filled with butterflies, and this changes her life. However, to get to this stage there are pages and pages with block after block of descriptive text with no breaks and I found my mind would wander easily and I hadn't really missed anything
This was billed as Kingsolver's "most accessible novel yet" which I interpret to mean that you don't need to be super intelligent to read it. I didn't have any trouble understanding the content but it's just so slow and there's lots and lots of scientific stuff in here. I felt I was being taught and a little preached to on global warming and the effects of climate change - I didn't really want this or need this from a novel.
I can appreciate that this novel is excellently written, the characters and subplots are really well developed but I can't seem to put my finger on this book in terms of what it made me feel. Was it interesting? deep? thought-provoking? informative? Yes, all of these but I was still bored and had I not been reading it for book club, I probably would have given up.
I found the last few chapters the most heartfelt with Dellarobia coming into her own, explaining the loss of her first child to her son, and other significant events that I won't reveal in case you read it!
Read if you're a fan of Kingsolver, it's not one I'd recommend but if you decide to give it a go I hope you enjoy it.
on 12 January 2014
Dellarobia Turnbow lives with her husband Cub and their two young children on a poverty-stricken Tennessee family farm owned by Cub's parents. She is frustrated by the Turnbow family's limited horizons and by her mother-in-law's unquestioning Christian belief that all difficulties and disasters must be accepted as reflecting God's will. Then her life is transformed when millions of monarch butterflies suddenly settle on the farm for the winter instead of making their usual winter migration to Mexico. A leading academic entomologist, Dr Ovid Byron, comes to the farm to research this change in migratory behaviour, which he identifies as a consequence of changes in the butterflies' traditional habitats resulting from climate change. Dellarobia assists Byron's research, and in the process she becomes still further frustrated as she glimpses what she perceives to be the more rewarding life style of Byron and his colleagues.
This is one of two novels about climate change which I have recently read; the other is Solar by Ian McEwan. I found it instructive to compare the two as a way of rating each of them. The two books share some similarities. Both feature an eminent scientist (Byron in Kingsolver's, and Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, in McEwan's); and in both cases this character is used as the vehicle for conveying relevant aspects of the science of climate change to the reader. In other respects, however, the two books are very different, and I overwhelmingly preferred Kingsolver's novel to McEwan's despite the fact that I rate McEwan highly as an author on the basis of some of his other novels, especially Atonement. The problem with McEwan's book is that it reads too much like a treatise about climate change, with some largely uninteresting characters and a difficult-to-believe plot tacked on as an afterthought. By contrast, Kingsolver's book has interesting characters who develop in believable ways throughout the novel, and climate change is the backdrop against which the story unfolds.
I particularly enjoyed two aspects of the book. The first was Kingsolver's treatment of the Turnbow family and their neighbours. This small-holding farming community is adversely affected by climate change (e.g. increased volatility in weather patterns is ruining some of their traditional crops) but - perhaps perversely - they mostly share Dellarobia's mother-in-law's view that everything that happens to them, for either good or bad, is simply God's will and therefore beyond the control of humankind. On this basis they are deeply suspicious of, and sometimes downright hostile to, Byron's arguments that what is happening to them is the result of man-made climate change and therefore potentially reversible if appropriate policy changes are implemented. I thought that Kingsolver developed this part of the novel very well: whilst it's clear that she accepts the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and is largely man-made, she takes the God-fearing views of the farming community seriously and treats them with dignity.
This leads on to the second aspect of the book which I particularly enjoyed, namely its treatment of differing, and sometimes clashing, cultures. A contrast is drawn between Byron's and Dellarobia's worlds. Byron represents the well-educated elite who travel the world and have big aspirations; Dellarobia represents poorly-educated people who often never leave their birth localities, and have narrow aspirations. Each of these groups has difficulty in understanding the other's lives and ambitions. I particularly enjoyed chapter 9, in which Byron interviews Dellarobia for a temporary job on his research project and gradually realises, as the interview develops, that many of his implicit assumptions about what he expects from his research colleagues are totally inapplicable to the lives led by Dellarobia and her neighbours.
Another culture clash in the book is between the worlds of pure science and journalism. The monarch butterflies' change in migratory behaviour attracts a swarm of news reporters who sensationalise what is happening, to the dismay of Dellarobia, whose naivety in the face of a manipulative news reporter leads to her being misrepresented in news reports. Later, in chapter 12, Byron angrily confronts a journalist, accusing her and the media in general of misrepresenting climate science in the interests of ratings and sound bites. This was one of the few places in the book where I was less than convinced by Kingsolver's treatment. I accept that many journalists behave in this way, but Kingsolver's caricature of a cynical news reporter is clearly unfair to the many serious journalists who try hard to give an accurate picture of climate science and its findings.
The differing cultures that feature in the book also provide the motivation for Dellarobia's character development: over the course of the novel her initial feelings of inadequacy in the face of Byron's educated sophistication are gradually replaced by an ambition to widen her own horizons. I found Dellarobia's character and its development both believable and enjoyable.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this book and would strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to read an intelligent and well-researched novel about one of the biggest challenges to the future of human civilisation.