I’m am admirer of Barbara Kingsolver’s work, and think The Poisonwood Bible is a masterpiece, so a copy of her most recent book, Flight Behaviour, was a welcome present last Christmas. I took it on holiday with me last week, and it got off to a good start. It begins with the main character, Dellarobia, on her way to meet a lover for the first time. She lives in rural Tennessee and got married at seventeen, because she was pregnant. She has two small children, an uneasy relationship with her farming in-laws, and her husband is decent, but dull. Her life is about to change – but in an unexpected way. She is saved from adultery and disgrace by what seems a miraculous vision of a valley on fire. It is actually millions and millions of orange monarch butterflies and this unprecedented event brings scientists and TV reporters flocking to her small town. There’s a lot to enjoy about this novel. Kingsolver is so good on the details of rural life – the sheep-sheering is beautifully described – and on small-town communities, supportive, but also stifling. She’s good on family life too, the way that small children are both wonderful and exhausting. And yet I put it down half-way through and have no desire to pick it up again. I will confess though that I did flick through to see how it ended.
So what went wrong? I see on Amazon that lots of people have loved it, though one or two, like me, have reservations. One thing, I think, is that the novel is seen from Dellarobia’s viewpoint and for me this didn’t always come off. Her thoughts and reactions didn’t always seem to be those of the poorly educated woman she was supposed to be – and there was a didactic element that wasn’t properly blended into the novel. A major theme of the novel is climate change, and though I am with Kingsolver on this, I felt it didn’t quite sit comfortably in the novel. But I could have overlooked these things, if only I had been gripped. But I never forgot that I was reading a novel. Maybe this is partly an occupational hazard in being a writer. I found I was noticing how she had contrived an event, or used a conversation to convey information. Somehow that forward tilt, that hook that pulls you into the novel and makes you forget about the world around you wasn’t there for me. Perhaps it didn’t help that I had so recently read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Almost anything might seem rather thin after that monumental and absorbing novel.