Kingsolver novel sugars the medicine, but gets its message across

Review: Vivien Horler

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver (faber & faber)

unshelteredIt’s hard to imagine a world in which belief in Darwin’s theories was considered to be heresy, and yet it is said that around a third of Americans still reject them today (the same research, reported in January 2015 by the Pew Research Centre in Washington DC, found that half the population did not believe in human-generated climate change either).

Fans of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels and other writing will know she is an earth warrior, unashamed to use her fiction as a vehicle in which to drive her views on the dangers of human profligacy and ignorance.

Her last novel, Flight Behaviour, about the plight of migrating butterflies, or Prodigal Summer, about the unhappy interface between small-time farmers and coyotes (in the South African context read sheep farmers and leopards and/or caracals) both have strong moral lessons.

Unsheltered is no different. Kingsolver has woven two tales together. The gloriously named Thatcher Greenwood is a young science teacher who lives in Vineland, New Jersey, in 1871, sharing a crumbling old house with his wife, mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Thatcher discovers that while he loves and desires his wife, the pair has little in common.

This is not true of his very proper relationship with his neighbour Mary Treat who, while not formally educated in science, is profoundly curious and interested, and who corresponds with the likes of Charles Darwin, to Thatcher’s enormous admiration.

The other thread of the story is that of Willa Knox, an out-of-work journalist who lives at the same place as Thatcher, only 150 years later. Willa lives with her college lecturer husband, 20-something daughter and new grandson in a home that is also crumbling – in fact is literally falling down.

Her fervent hope is that she can persuade a historical society to give her a grant to help save the house, on the grounds that it belonged to the famous historical – and real life – figure, Mary Treat.

Thatcher’s career is endangered by his conviction that Darwin is right, because his headmaster sees in Darwin’s theories a denial of God and Christianity. Thatcher worries about money and his job, but is consoled by Treat, who tells him: “Your charge is to lead (your pupils) out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.” To which Thatcher replies: “To stand in the clear light of day, you once said. Unsheltered.”

Meanwhile Willa tries to keep her family together in their hopeless home after a tragedy – her son Zeke’s wife kills herself just weeks after she has given birth to their baby. A stunned Zeke stays on in Boston, where he works, while Willa takes over the care of the infant boy.

But what keeps Willa going is her research into the history of her home and Mary Treat.

There is a lot of message in this novel: arguments about capitalism and a less avid financial system; about Darwinism and God; about treating an endangered planet kindly.

Willa and Kingsolver’s interest in words and editing merge in some tart reflections about the state of English today. A young visitor tells Willa: “ ‘I didn’t know there was like a baby.’ Willa resisted pointing out it wasn’t like a baby, it was the actual article.”

Despite the moralising, Kingsolver brings to life some warm, interesting and wry characters who find themselves in difficult situations and who emerge with grace.

A thoroughly satisfying read.




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