Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

"Flight Behaviour" by Barbara Kingsolver (2013, faber and faber)

In the first section the main character Dellarobia (an unhappy, 27 year-old mother living in a poor, isolated farming community) is walking uphill on her way to having an affair (in flight from her marriage). A strange burst of color makes her turn back. When her extended family says they're going to have the trees on that hill cut down, she tells them to go and have a look first. They see millions of bright butterflies that Dellarobia hadn't seen because she hadn't been wearing her glasses. Her prescience (she doesn't initially want to tell them that she's been up there) is given religious significance by many church-going people, and a butterfly expert arrives to see why the Monarchs had changed their migratory behaviour. Media and tourists arrive. This contact with the outside world (not least the temporary work as a research assistant) give her the confidence to split with her husband and go to college.

The novel begins "A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture". Paragraph 2 gives an indication of the style

The children were with her mother-in-law. She'd dropped off those babies this morning on barely sufficient grounds, and it might just kill her to dwell on that now. Their little faces turned up to her to like the round hearts of two daisies: She loves me, loves me not. All those hopes placed in such a precarious vessel. Realistically, the family could be totaled. That was the word, like a wrecked car wrapped about a telegraph pole, not salvageable parts. No husband worth having is going to forgive adultery if it comes to that. And still she felt pulled up this incline by the hand whose touch might bring down all she knew. Maybe she even craved the collapse, with an appetite larger than sense.

The figurative language piles up

Hester wasn't the only one living in fantasyland with righteousness on her side; people just did that, this family and maybe all others. 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. Dellarobia felt herself flung from complacency as if from a car crash, walking away from that vale of fire feeling powerful and free. (p.31)

If this is the voice of Dellarobia, who seems insufficiently challenged intellectually, it would work. But is it? Here's more

Her mind was on temporary leave from the din when her phone caused her to jump, ratcheting its manic jangle from the sofa cushions under her. It must have slid out of her pocket and attempted its own escape (p.42)

And more. Sentence after sentence

Snow. Roy [the dog] bounded wolfishly through the white deep, nosing into drifts, leaving a tangled line of tracks as he hurried to put his small yellow tags on all on the yard's most notable points. The dog version of Post-its.
The cedars in the Cooks' front yard were flocked with white, and their holly tree was enveloped in ice, giving the effect of a commemorative Christmas plate. The big maple on the property line was less enchanting as it dropped limbs onto the driveway at steady intervals, crash, crash, like an angry drunk.

or this

Dellarobia began dismantling the octopus of warm stuck-together clothing, pulling out socks, while Dovey tried to fold tiny flannel shirts whose seams puckered like lettuce (p.251)

Sometimes it offers opportunities for humour

  • " Dellarobia had managed to corral her [daughter Cordie's] fleecy hair into two wild blond poofs, with a center part so crooked it could get a DUI, and that was the sum total of grooming the child would presently allow. Dellarobia harbored a secret fondness for the wild streak, something she herself had swallowed down long before her daughter was born, only to see it erupt again in Codie like a wet-weather spring " (p.105). I had to look up "DUI"
  • " People automatically estimate a mom's IQ at around her children's ages, maybe dividing by the number of kids, rounding up to the nearest pyjama size " (p.115)

I don't always know whether the narrator or the character is making a point, which is a shame given that the intellectual development of Dellarobia is a key theme.

  • "She stuck with the packaged colors, which had alluring names like Amazon and Ruby, but came out plain old green and red. Much like life itself" (p.110)
  • "Just now Dellarobia was jonesing to step on the back porch for a very quick smoke, but was thwarted by the pink roll of towel that lay at the bottom of the door like a dank, fat snake. She knew that thing would be cold to the touch, like something dead" (p.170)
  • "It was like being inside a video game (p.207). Contextually Dellarobia seems to be expressing this, but she doesn't have a computer or smartphone.
  • "She tried on a fitted corduroy blazer, forest green, circa Angie Dickinson " (p.404). Both the use of "circa" and the name-drop seem inappropriate for someone of the main character's age and education. Whereas in "It was probably their chief project as a married couple, she thought: tearing honeysuckle out of a fence " (p.359) it's clear who's thinking what.

Analogies between her plight and that of natural world abound. The final chapter's entitled "Perfect Female". Earlier, we've been told that in the insect world a perfect female has all the parts and behaviours to bring up offspring, so it's no surprize that the book ends the way it does. She moves out to live with Dovey, taking the children with her. On p.318 she says "If fight or flight is the choice, it's way easier to fly" but she's learnt her lesson now. On p.422 she and Dovey had this discussion

"Remember when we were going to be airline stewardesses?" she asked. "But they don't actually go anywhere, do they? Fly around all day and end up in the same place, bringing snacks to grumpy people, who needs it?"
Dellarobia thought that sounded exactly like her life

Various themes thread through the book.

  • At 17 she had a stillborn. She discovers that in Mexican culture the butterflies are thought to be the souls of children. In the snow she brings to life a premature lamb.
  • Dellarobia's relationship with her matriarchal mother-in-law Hester changes.
  • Science versus Religion isn't a theme. I thought it might become so. Religious quotes change the mind of the land-owner, but as far as the plot's concerned, the significance is that Bobby delivers the quotes.
  • They cut a tree down for an xmas tree (alluding to the planned logging), but can't afford to decorate it. Nor can they tap into the family's horde of decorations.

At around p.340 things slow down. A scene in the second-hand, house-clearance warehouse doesn't deliver enough bucks per page. Around p.420 I wondered about skipping to the next section. Infodumps come in the form of 2-person dialogues, or, on p.480, pretty much raw. Throughout, I like how Cordie's depicted, the way she talks and how she plays with toys. Preston's more of a plot convenience.

I ended up with a nostalgia for the short story form. At times in this book the blanket-bombing detail and figuration become tiring. We're reminded too many times of Cub's personality, of the family's poverty. I read passages like the following and wondered why so much words were needed.

At the upper east corner of the field they began to make their way down along the property line between their pasture and the Cooks' dead orchard. The skeletal peach trees in their rows leaned into the slope with branches upstretched like begging hands. Casualties of the strange weather. The window in Preston and Cordie's room looked out on these trees, and for a while she'd kept the curtains drawn, it was so depressing. (p.355)

Other reviews

  • Robin McKie (Guardian)
  • Liz Jensen (Guardian) (Kingsolver's masterly evocation of an age – ours, here, now – stumbling wilfully blind towards the abyss is an elegy not just for the endangered monarch butterfly, but for the ambitious, flawed species that conjured the mass extinction of which its loss is a part. Urgent issues demand important art. Flight Behaviour rises – with conscience and majesty – to the occasion of its time)
  • Beth Jones (Telegraph) (a compelling plot with lyrical passages and flashes of humour. Absorbing and entertaining, Flight Behaviour engages the reader in the quotidian details of Dellarobia’s life, while insisting that we never forget the crumbling world beneath her, and our, feet)
  • Kay Rollinson (the book’s title gives a hint about how it is actually all underpinned by the metaphor of flight, as well as the reality of flight that is part of the butterflies’ migration)
  • Arifa Akbar (Independent) (Until a certain point, early on in Flight Behaviour, it seems as if Barbara Kingsolver has written the perfect novel. Her prose is elegant, urgent and rich with beauty, depth and feeling ... in its weakest passages, Kingsolver slips into the trite language of romantic fiction. We are informed that Dellarobia is a petite Southern beauty but Kingsolver will not let us forget the fact. ... We are reminded of the message – that Dellarobia's life is an impoverished one despite her feistiness and ambition – with tedious consistency. ... This is a novel as compelling and epic as it is maddening. One wonders whether, had Kingsolver chosen brevity over heft, she might not have ended up with a better book)
  • Sonia Nair (While Dellarobia’s observations of life in a small American town often come across as astute, intelligent and often wry, Kingsolver is less successful when it comes to weaving her climate change premise into the story. Lengthy sections of scientific reasoning and technical jargon clumsily pepper the later half of the book – predominantly in conversations between Ovid and Dellarobia – but instead of piquing one’s interest in the subject, they come across as exceedingly laboured and clunky, and detract from the brilliant writing found in other parts of the novel. Clich├ęs abound)

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