A new Barbara Kingsolver book is always an event in the literary calendar, although I haven’t read them all. I loved The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and Flight Behaviour. In the latter the central character is a woman from small town America whose life normally bounded by childcare, domestic duties and caring for the in-laws, is changed by the arrival of a scientific observation team who have come to examine the effects of climate change on the migration patterns of Monarch butterflies.
Unsheltered uses similar tropes for the central character of the modern story Willa although reverses them. Willa is a professional woman (a journalist) with two adult children who having moved to Vineland, New Jersey for her husband’s job finds herself trying to undertake freelance work and then trying to survive, in that order.
The book has two time shifts. One, the modern story, is set in Trump’s America (2016 ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ says Willa on hearing the result of the New Hampshire primary) and the historic story set in 1871 amongst the same community.
Willa’s journalistic ambitions are seriously stymied by the illness of her ageing and impossible father-in-law, Nick, who has no plans to go gently into that good night and whose care falls to Willa. Another catastrophe strikes as Willa’s adult son Zeke, married with a newborn, is suddenly faced with the death of his own partner. Urgent childcare is needed, a breach into which Willa also steps. As if those things are not enough, the Vineland house into which the family has recently moved is diagnosed as literally falling to pieces.
Because this is Kingsolver we know there will be science. The historic section of the book is set in houses on the same street, and concerns a lady called Mary Treat (a real person), a naturalist and entomologist who wrote many books and articles and corresponded with Charles Darwin.
Willa’s belief that Mary Treat might have lived in the house that her family currently occupies gives her hope that she could register the house as being of historic interest and so be eligible for grant funding to do urgent repairs. After research, though, It turns out acclaimed biologist Mary Treat did not live in Willa’s house but in a house over the road. Willa’s house was in fact occupied by the family of a local school master named rather uproariously Thatcher Greenwood.
We learn that Thatcher is a proponent of Darwinian science – beliefs considered dangerous and ungodly by the head of the school in which he is employed as a teacher. He is peremptorily told not to fill the children’s heads with ungovernable nonsense such as evolution. Ultimately Thatcher is told to disavow his Darwinian beliefs which -sensibly on the side of history – he refuses to do.
Back to the future, and undaunted by research showing the absence of Mary Treat or her ilk from her home, Willa sets about trying to find a possible connection between Thatcher and Mary. Was there a connection between Thatcher Greenwood and Mrs Mary Treat, Willa wonders (you’ll have to read the book to find out) and if so was it sufficient to enable her to make an application for historic registration of her property?
‘These two iconoclasts living in one another’s line of sight, anode and cathode, had some current flowing between them that Willa had accidentally stuck a hand into.’
This story is not just about someone trying to apply for a housing grant. As part of the modern story, Unsheltered is also about generational differences but not the sort of generational differences that the boomers had with their parents which was all about cool and uncool and music and vibes. The expectations of the boomer generation was achiever fever, to outdo their parents in wealth, position collecting of stuff, size of house. The new generational differences are much more fundamental. They relate to understanding the depths of disaster that the planet is facing and the price of survival. They are about recognising:
‘The global contempt for temperance and nurture, the fierce entitlement to every kind of consumption’
This whole books is a metaphor for how we are going to have to completely redefine things which are important to us in the future. A timely metaphor indeed on a day when Greta Thunberg has addressed the World Economic Forum at Davos asking us to act as if nothing matters more than our children.
Oh boy can Kingsolver do metaphors! You only have to look at the central tenet of the story – a house with no foundations! And one of the minor characters in the story quite literally gets away with murder. The title of the debate ‘Darwin versus Decency’ in which Thatcher takes part, sounds as ridiculous to modern ears, as the utterings of climate deniers will sound to the ears of generations into the future.
But though I admired this book, somehow I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to enjoy it – not as much as some of the previous books. I found the historical storyline less absorbing than the modern day one, the characters harder to get a handle on. I think I kept waiting for a ta-dah sort of revelation, but there was none. The reader has to be satisfied with small victories and uplifting moments, against a background of relative awfulness. And isn’t that just like life.