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Global warming. Now, there’s a phrase that can divide opinion, stir up controversy and shine a spotlight on apathy (“I’m just tired of hearing about it”, “There’s nothing I can do anyway”, etc. etc.) It’s nearly impossible to discuss without resorting to well-trodden rhetorical ground and, no matter how virtuous your audience, there’s usually something more exciting, shiny and new to think about instead. It is a brave novelist who decides to write about global warming.
Barbara Kingsolver is exactly that. A bold and ambitious writer, she is undaunted by scope and magnitude, and delights in teasing a simple story out of nothing before gathering it into something elegant, grand and sweeping. Bestselling The Poisonwood Bible, for example, is a daring, impressive work that reveals a cultural context through a sustained focus on a group of characters.
Her latest novel, Flight Behaviour, has similarly modest beginnings: flame-haired Dellarobia, a stay-at-home mother of two in small-town Tennessee who gave up her own dreams when she married a farmer at seventeen, is disillusioned by her life of domestic drudgery and one dollar stores – and she is going to throw it all away on an affair. But, striding up a muddy hill to meet her lover, she is stopped short by a writhing forest of orange flames blazing before her. “It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.”
Beneath this beautiful, fierce and biblical language quivers the anxious figure of climate change. In a dirt-poor, god-fearing community, such “unearthly beauty” can mean all sorts of things – a religious vision, a majestic natural event, a money-making opportunity – but to the on-site scientists, led by handsome, intelligent Ovid, this is a disaster. For Dellarobia did not see a lake of burning fire, but a colony of orange, fluttering Monarch butterflies – butterflies, more importantly, that should not be on a Tennessean mountain-side, and whose presence there can only signify profound ecological discord.
If we care deeply about the butterflies’ plight – and I did – it is only because we care deeply for our protagonist. Kingsolver has created a spiky, intelligent yet fragile character, who is struggling against the confines of her circumstances. 17 and pregnant, Dellarobia gave up her dreams of escape and a better life to marry mild-mannered but ineffectual Cub. 11 years later, and living in the shadow of her domineering parents-in-law, Bear and Hester, she is resigned to the sad tangle of her life: a loveless marriage, two children, loneliness, affairs, buried memories, arguments, dirty carpets, Sunday church, too many cigarettes, ambitions never realized, a future never lived.
When it comes to characters, Kingsolver is a patient writer, one who won’t deliver sparkling creations you’ll immediately fall in love with. Instead, she works in small details, slowly coaxing into being a delicately woven portrayal of somebody else’s life, complete with small-town, every-day concerns and flaws and contradictions aplenty. This slow, deliberate and incremental writing is crucial to the success of the Flight Behaviour. We are introduced to characters and a setting and we are made to care for them, despite – or because of – their limitations. Only then does Kingsolver let us know what Flight Behaviour is about: the damning effect of global warming on our world. But if global warming is the issue at the heart of the novel, Kingsolver rarely lets it become bigger than her characters. Indeed, its huge, terrifying scope is tempered – and brought into sharper focus – by the daily grind of life in a recession-hit rural community. As much as this is about environmental concerns, it is also about a woman who is struggling with the confines of a life she didn’t choose to live. It is at once humbling and uplifting.
Unfortunately, the problem with such a gradually woven story is that tugging on a stray thread can reveal unseemly holes. Repetition might be part of the structure of this ambitious novel, but there are times when even the most sedate of readers might be irritated to learn, for the sixth time, that Cub likes to channel hop, that Ovid has a strong accent and that Dellarobia is not very tall. A brave novelist Kingsolver might be, but even she cannot avoid a little heavy-handedness in her approach to such a controversial topic. The onslaught of scientific information in the latter half of the novel, for example, is particularly difficult to digest, and the issue at its heart – while so subtly introduced and handled in general – no longer shimmers shrewdly in the background but struts in the foreground.
It would be a mistake, though, to fall into the trap of disregarding this intelligent and accomplished novel because of a little clumsy repetition. It would be even more of a mistake to ignore the importance of Kingsolver’s message, simply because it is sometimes delivered a little hot-headedly – the message that global warming is happening and it’s happening now. It’s lucky, then, that Flight Behaviour only rarely falters. For the most part, this is an elegantly conceived novel filled with believable characters, who, for all their faults, are drawn with respect and compassion. Kingsolver might have a lot to say about peoples’ reticent attitude to climate change, but she never scorns their narrow logic and everyday failures.
And if the idea of global warming still gets you hot under your opinionated collar, Kingsolver’s masterly use of language and beautifully sustained characterisation should be enough of a draw. She crafts sentences that would leave other writers stumbling, and binds together the humble and the majestic in such a way that both sadness and splendour are deeply moving. As Dellarobia works with the scientists to help save the butterflies, she experiences her own metamorphosis, and must shed her old life to recover her dreams. It is Kingsolver’s sensitive portrayal of Dellarobia that allows this novel to soar above the mud-slinging that characterizes the global warming debate. We could learn much from Dellarobia when, near the end of Flight Behaviour, she thinks to herself, “Things look impossible when you’ve not done them”.