Thursday 30 October 2014

Juggling domestic troubles and the threat of a global crisis

Published 11/11/2012 | 06:00

In American author Barbara Kingsolver's 1998 novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Orleanna, a missionary's wife, is dragged by her husband from Georgia to the violent, unstable and soon-to-be-independent Belgian Congo of the late 1950s.

Recounting her life of domestic drudgery and unhappiness she later tries to recall: "What trivial thing was I doing while they divided the map beneath my feet?"

In Kingsolver's latest novel, Flight Behaviour, the world shifts beneath an unhappy family once more. In God-fearing modern-day Tennessee, Dellarobia, a young mother, struggles with marriage while changes in the climate threaten her farm.

The freak arrival of millions of monarch butterflies from Mexico -- "a lifting brightness [sweeping] the landscape, flowing up the mountainside in a wave" -- seems to bring the fragile hope of a miracle into her bleak world. Yet, as scientists descend, she learns the butterflies' presence signals a biological meltdown.

Kingsolver has carved a career from examining social issues in her novels, from economic inequality to racism. In Flight Behaviour, it's the causes and consequences of climate change that form the novel's core.

As lepidopterist Ovid Bryon shouts: "For God's sake . . . the damn globe is catching fire and the islands are drowning. The evidence is staring [you] in the face".

Kingsolver's most popular works, such as The Poisonwood Bible or her Orange Prize-winning 2009 novel The Lacuna, have combined big issues -- nations failing, races clashing, planets crumbling -- with the minutiae of everyday life, and in Flight Behaviour she once again manages to make a global crisis seem relevant through tiny domestic details.

For Dellarobia ("the wife who keeps having inappropriate crushes, falling off the marriage wagon, if only in her mind") the threat of "a whole new earth" is just one of many concerns as she juggles childcare, spats with her mother-in-law and grief for her dead firstborn.

The result is a compelling plot with lyrical passages and flashes of humour. Flight Behaviour engages the reader in the quotidian details of Dellarobia's life, while insisting we never forget the crumbling world beneath her -- and our -- feet.

Beth Jones

Indo Review

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