Mr Liz and I are big Kingsolver fans. I have been for a very long time (since before I began book blogging!) and Matthew picked her up at Flight Behaviour, which he read with me, then went back to Prodigal Summer (for me, a re-read) and The Poisonwood Bible. Neither of us fancy The Lacuna, as we don’t like fiction about real people (yes, I realise that comes into this one) and don’t love a historical novel (again, but in fact this cemented that for us). I made the unusual move of buying this one in hardback on the day it came out, and Matthew got the audio book at the same time, narrated by Kingsolver, whom he highly rates as a narrator of her own novels.

Now, people do complain that what they don’t like about Kingsolver is that she’s didactic and lectures one. I’m fine with the fact that she’s got a lesson to share and information to impart, and yes, it’s a novel that teaches you things, but that’s not a bad thing in my book. In addition, I don’t personally feel it feels clunky, but arises naturally from what the characters have to say and what they do. We learn as other characters learn. I do appreciate that’s not for everyone and I would never try to force a writer like this on anyone – also of course she is somewhat preaching to the converted where we’re concerned, but you can’t be out of your bubble all the time (at all!) can you.

Barbara Kingsolver – “Unsheltered”

(18 October 2018)

In 2016 Vineland, Willa is living with her husband, second-generation Greek-American Iano, his profoundly unwell father, Nick, their tiny, dreadlocked, activist daughter Tig and an ailing dog. They have a son Zeke who’s the golden boy, new father, tech startup millionaire (on paper, anyway) with a lovely corporate wife. Meanwhile, Tig comes and goes, appears to be mending cars with the Hispanic lads next door and is unfathomable, and Nick, when he gets out and about, demands to listen to right-wing talk radio as he personifies the Trump voter. Their house is falling down around their ears but they came into it and can’t afford anything else, even though Iano is well-educated and Willa a freelance writer.

In 1871 Vineland, Thatcher Greenwood is struggling to come to terms with a new marriage (up for him, down for his wife) and life in an ailing house, which is falling down around their ears, but they came into it and can’t afford anything else. Thatcher is a schoolteacher and bursting to show his pupils the delights of Darwinian evolution, but is being stymied at every turn by his boss and the boss of the town. He meets an odd woman scientist, Mary Treat, and gets to let off steam with her. But his wife craves pretty dresses and ponies and for that he will have to buckle down.

In a huge way, this book is about underestimating people. Both Tig and Mary are seriously underestimated, but so is the threat from Trump. Nick seems powerless but his cohort brings in chaos. A headmaster with a hook for a hand on the wrong side of history turns out to be an enemy that can’t be beaten. The power of justice is overestimated. Everything’s a mess and people’s houses are falling down around their ears when they’ve made a good life and what should be the right choices. Even the structure of the novel is undermined: while you read the book you realise that most of the big events actually happen off-stage, and we’re left with the spaces between and around them.

As usual, against the backdrop of huge ideas and sweeping social change, Kingsolver is excellent at the minutiae of family relationships. The growing respect between Willa and Tig is gently and beautifully drawn, as Willa realises how she has let her down in favour of the golden boy, very much less golden it seems now. Who represents the future: the small-scale activist doing practical good in gardens and individual people’s lives or the tech startup with everything in the cloud?

This really sums up the modern half of the book with its interleaving chapters:

We can’t afford to stop doing the shit that’s screwing up the weather, and can’t afford to pick up the pieces after we do our shit. (p. 172)

Although Matthew hasn’t quite finished the book yet, I can speak for him too when I say we both preferred the modern chapters; however the 19th century ones were really well-done and involving, with good characters. It was slightly frustrating to see everything through Thatcher’s eyes, but also a good exercise in top-flight writing to make it believable, reveal things a bit at a time and follow what a man of his age would have thought.

I wouldn’t put this above Flight Behaviour and Prodigal Summer, but that’s not to say it wasn’t good. Testament to its power and readability was the fact that I used up our extra hour of sleep hunched under the covers, reading and reading to see if Kingsolver was going to say there’s any hope in our world. Whoever it was I read who was looking for Great American Novels, I think this would count!

I’m currently reading Hal Higdon’s “Run Fast” which is less annoying than I thought it would be; and next up for review is Jill Balguchinsky’s rather marvellous “Mammoth”. What’s the best book you’ve read in October?