Rich and real shelter
Unsheltered — Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber, $36.99) reviewed by Louise Ward, Wardini Books.
This novel deals with the idea of shelter and exposure in many forms, primarily in the guise of a particular house as it weathers the storms of time and the families who call it home.
In 2016 Willa and her husband Iano move to Vineland, a town built in the late 1800s by Captain Landis, upon utopian ideals. Willa’s life is falling apart and so is the house that should have been her refuge. Her prickly daughter has moved in, Iano’s father is dying in one crumbling room and when their son’s partner takes her own life they inherit a newborn grandson. The threat of a bigoted new president seems laughable but looms large as he runs a campaign of fear and hatred. Willa’s one hope is that the town’s historical society may turn up something that will help her save her home. In 1871 new teacher Thatcher lives in a Vineland house that has been unwisely extended. The cracks in his home, his young marriage and his career run alongside each other as he attempts to propound Darwinism in a profoundly Christian new town. Captain Landis has an inexplicable amount of influence and rules by spreading fear and hatred. Thatcher’s one hope is the support offered him by his eccentric neighbour Mrs Treat, a spider-rearing scientist next door and a correspondent of Darwin.
There is so much story in this novel. The dialogue is rich and real — morally opposed siblings scrap, Victorian mores are infuriating, scientific conversations are so immersive the reader feels like the insect on the wall, hovering a little too close to Mrs Treat’s Venus Flytrap. The connection between Thatcher and Willa is a tenuous thread as she tries desperately to put together the pieces of her home’s past to secure its future. There is scandal, injustice and many parallels between past and present. Unsheltered is an fascinating read, expertly put together.