Breadth of a nat­u­ral­ist

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - SEÁN HE­WITT

UN­SHEL­TERED BAR­BARA KING­SOLVER Faber & Faber, 480pp, £20

It would be wrong to read a novel by Bar­bara King­solver with­out ex­pect­ing a clear po­lit­i­cal agenda. In Flight Be­hav­iour, she tack­led cli­mate change; in The Poi­son­wood Bi­ble, colo­nial guilt; in The La­cuna, censorship. Her lat­est work, Un­shel­tered, is the first to be pub­lished in the Trump era, and it cer­tainly grap­ples with the many chal­lenges of Amer­i­can life.

Medi­care, im­mi­gra­tion, fem­i­nism, re­ac­tionary pol­i­tics: all are cov­ered. In fact, the ti­tle it­self un­der­goes a nu­anc­ing over the course of the novel, so that the reader be­comes aware of the many ways of be­ing “un­shel­tered” – be­ing re­moved from a pre­vi­ously “shel­tered” life, for a start; but also of be­ing un­shel­tered by the state, by the com­mu­nity, by the fam­ily.

Mov­ing back and forth in al­ter­nate chap­ters be­tween Trump’s Amer­ica and the 1870s, King­solver fo­cuses on the lives of two char­ac­ters, Willa Knox and Thatcher Green­wood, both of whom are set against the pre­vail­ing logic of their times. The two in­ter­twined nar­ra­tives are set in Vineland, a real town in New Jersey that was orig­i­nally built as a utopian com­mu­nity in the 1860s.

Willa Knox and her hus­band have both found them­selves un­em­ployed, and move into a house they have in­her­ited. In dire fi­nan­cial straits, and with the house fall­ing down around them, they be­gin re­search­ing their home’s past in the hopes of find­ing some­thing of his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance that might se­cure a char­i­ta­ble or govern­ment grant. Dur­ing the re­search, Willa be­comes fas­ci­nated with the story of Thatcher Green­wood, a science teacher in the Vineland of the 1870s, and his neigh­bour Mary Treat (a real his­tor­i­cal fig­ure), who is a tal­ented nat­u­ral­ist keep­ing up an en­vi­able cor­re­spon­dence with Charles Dar­win. Over the course of the novel, the two nar­ra­tives be­gin to in­ter­twine more fully, chim­ing in both po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance.

To be­gin with, how­ever, the con­nec­tions be­tween the two sto­ries are some­what dif­fi­cult to as­cer­tain, and King­solver re­sorts to us­ing ver­bal and metaphor­i­cal echoes be­tween the two that seem glib. Why she chooses to con­tinue this prac­tice as the nar­ra­tives be­gin to mesh more fully is un­clear. Most of­ten, the fi­nal line of one chap­ter in one time-pe­riod be­comes the ti­tle of the next chap­ter, but that is the only real con­nec­tion. Oth­er­wise, un­con­vinc­ing threads are made be­tween the two: in one, for ex­am­ple, a char­ac­ter com­pares an eco­nomic co­nun­drum to be­ing be­tween a rock and a hard place, “Scylla and Charyb­dis”. In the next chap­ter, a pair of dogs from 150 years pre­vi­ous are called Scylla and Charyb­dis. These cute con­nect­ing fea­tures have lit­tle real sig­nif­i­cance, and risk ap­pear­ing pa­tro­n­is­ing, or putting off a reader be­fore the ac­tual nar­ra­tives be­gin to in­ter­sect.

Pre­vi­ously a stu­dent of evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy and ecol­ogy, King­solver’s de­pic­tion of Mary Treat and her work in nat­u­ral his­tory is well­re­searched, in­ter­est­ing, and poignant. Like­wise, the strug­gle of the Dar­win-in­spired Thatcher against the lead­er­ship of the com­mu­nity is played out in touch­ing and el­e­gant form. The his­tor­i­cal set­ting of the Thatcher story, though it goes ham­mer-and-tongs at the God vs Evo­lu­tion de­bate to the point of te­dium at times, means that it avoids feel­ing preachy and self-right­eous.

The con­tem­po­rary nar­ra­tive, how­ever, feels more ob­vi­ously po­lit­i­cally loaded, and of­ten falls flat. There are long con­ver­sa­tions about eco­nom­ics, Oc­cupy Wall Street, health in­surance, im­mi­gra­tion, and po­lit­i­cal divi­sion, which of­fer scant in­sight given their length, and can feel self-in­dul­gent or overly bogged down in de­tail. When Willa takes her son Nick to hos­pi­tal, for ex­am­ple, we are sub­ject to a five-page ad­min­is­tra­tive con­ver­sa­tion about dif­fer­ent health­care poli­cies, net­works, and in­surance plans. Ul­ti­mately, none of this seems geared to con­vince those who might pick up the novel from an al­ter­na­tive po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion: rather, it can feel preachy, self-sat­is­fied, a con­structed echo-cham­ber of nar­ra­tive polemics.

That said, the in­ter­play be­tween the two sto­ries is ef­fec­tive, and both would be less­ened by the re­moval of ei­ther. In fact, the struc­tur­ing of the book is a sig­nif­i­cant part of its power: like two pis­tons work­ing in tan­dem, the nar­ra­tives push each other for­wards, rais­ing the stakes, hold­ing our at­ten­tion at a peak that oth­er­wise would be lost in what are, in­di­vid­u­ally, slowly-paced sto­ries.

King­solver’s broad and in­sight­ful re­flec­tions on ecol­ogy, in par­tic­u­lar, stand out. At times, the work of the nat­u­ral­ist takes on a sub­tle po­tency when con­sid­ered along­side the over­ar­ch­ing themes of the home, po­lit­i­cal strug­gle, the need for safety in in­se­cure times. As Willa re­flects, on read­ing the work of Mary Treat, “She was . . . into do­mes­tic things, bird nests and spi­der tow­ers. How they learned to build them, what forces af­fected their sur­vival.”


Un­shel­tered au­thor Bar­bara King­solver

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