Saturday, September 28, 2013

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

In 2010, unprecedented rainfall brought floods and mudslides to the Mexican town of Angangueo, and posed a serious threat to the spectacular colonies of Monarch Butterflies the region was famous for. The possible loss of winter habitat could have interfered with the hard coded flight behavior of the Monarch population, leading to unforeseen results. Barbara Kingsolver blends fiction into these facts—the sudden relocation of the butterfly colonies to the Appalachian farm of our heroine Dellarobia Turnbow—and comes up with a book that works well at many levels.

As a little township grapples with the lepidopteran visitation, scientists, tourists and newsmongers descend on the thinking heroine’s farm. And while the reader is exhorted in none too subtle language to wake up to the grave peril of global weirding (I do prefer the author’s terminology for climate change), Dellarobia achieves her own predictable awakening. This is a novel with an agenda. Not that it is a bad thing. In fact I would rate this as a great achievement, the fact that Kingsolver is able to make an agenda driven book readable—after a fashion.

The book begins fabulously, right up to the introduction of the butterflies in our heroine’s lackluster life. It ends reasonably well, in a rush of gorgeous nature welling up in all its glory to impress mankind. However, what lies in between is tedious to say the least. The science behind the story is developed through conversations between Dellarobia, and the entomologist camped out in her backyard, in a Master and Acolyte style that has a cloying, gimmicky feel to it. Nor does the scientific exposition arouse in me a sense of amazement, the kind of wonder for example that E.O. Wilson’s “Trailhead,” did. (This New Yorker extract from Wilson’s novel “Anthill” centered on the establishment and demise of an ant colony. I give the link below-)

Amirrezvani- she looks like Kingsolver! 
A woman rises to her potential
Apart from the science, a good part of the book is devoted to a study of Dellarobia’s mis-marriage. We have it on good authority, from Dellarobia herself in fact, that she is dissatisfied and that she wants out. But the source of her unhappiness, her husband’s lack of character is not fleshed out well enough for us to feel much sympathy. Neither do I find her state of dissatisfaction credible. Why for example, does she find Chinese toys in a store tacky if she has never seen any better? Oh yes the seamstress mother and the wood craftsman father. I am not buying it. I have seen children of Kanjeevaram weavers flocking for chintz prints on fluorescent nylex because they believe it is fancier. I recommend Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers for a superior treatment of the same subject – the awakening of a subjugated woman to her potential. 

However the fact remains that Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful craftswoman, her work abounding in interesting metaphors and observations borrowed from the mundane.  Check these out: 

In the normal course of events everything got snatched from her (Dellarobia’s) hands – “her hairbrush, the TV clicker, the soft middle part of the sandwich, the last Coke she had waited all afternoon to open.”

They built their tidy houses of self-importance and special blessing and went inside and slammed the door, unaware the mountain behind them was aflame.

…a child thinking what snow should be: soft and lovely, instead of the cold, wet truth.

The tumbling dog feet on the stairs sounded like a waterfall in reverse.

But being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always never by herself.

She felt like a picky-eating toddler having a spaghetti nightmare.

Dear Abby had a smart mouth and a kind heart, that’s why people read her; the combination was rare.

She’d tried to get dressed, but the child had pelted her all morning with a hail of no; she felt like a woman stoned for the sin of motherhood.

It was a rule of marriage: the more desperately you needed alone time with your spouse, the quicker you’d spoil it with a blowout.

On television, deriding people was hip. The elderly, the na├»ve —it shocked her sometimes how the rules had changed.

(The butterflies clung) “to their family trees, lulled into dormancy from which they would not wake."

There are many more. You could check the book out. Or not. I found it a tad lacking in plot, implausible and preachy, written in a reasonably engaging way. If you want the verbal virtuosity I would suggest you first read her wildly successful Poisonwood Bible. There is a gripping tale.