Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Club time again! Later this week, the book club I belong to will be meeting to discuss Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, and I have no idea what anyone else will have to say about it, but I liked it quite a lot. Right from the beginning, I was grabbed by the writing.

The prose manages to be both precise and evocative, with descriptions of the main character, Dellarobia, and her life, that felt so confining I couldn't breathe.

As the book opens, Dellarobia is about to throw her marriage away for a fling (this is all on the inside jacket, so I don't think it counts as a spoiler.) On her way, though, she sees what looks like trees aflame. (It might be worth mentioning that she is not wearing her glasses.) Eventually, it is revealed that monarch butterflies have settled on a huge swath of her in-laws' property, to overwinter somewhere they've never overwintered before.

So here we get a story of climate change, as signified by the changing conditions that made the butterflies try to find a new winter home, and the scientist who is there to watch, record, and maybe witness the death of a species.

That larger picture takes place against Dellarobia's life, who is dissatisfied with her husband and her life. They were married as teenagers because she was pregnant. When she lost the baby, they stayed married, and eventually had two more children. But it's not a marriage of mutual comfort and help. Dellarobia is frankly irritated by Cub, and he is a little baffled by his wife. No one is the bad guy in this story, but it's painful and difficult.

This feels like it could be a book about how the poor rednecks don't understand the importance of changing our carbon consumption, or it could be a snap back that anyone who says that doesn't understand the difficulties of life in poverty. This book is far more nuanced than that. There are no real bad guys, although there are plenty who have never known how to think outside their immediate horizon.

Kingsolver negotiates this delicately, both acknowledging the cultural gap while not exaggerating it. There is common ground even in the midst of science in a sheep barn.

One of the underlying themes, as I said above, is about the changing and erratic nature of weather on our planet in the face of climate change, and the difficulty in getting people to take it seriously. What I like best is how perceptive Kingsolver is about hierarchies of concern, and how those hierarchies come to be constructed and reinforced, as well as how they crumble and shift.

In other words, I like the story and characters a great deal. But what I was blown away by was how deftly Kingsolver made me feel Dellarobia's sense of confinement, delineated the borders of her world as a stay-at home mom in a poor town with no money to spare for virtually anything. It wasn't patronizing, but it is powerful.

In the end, it's about how we create our own worlds, but conversely, it's about how the world we are born into gives us certain boundaries that cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand.

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