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Kingsolver delivers meaty state-of-the-nation novel

Fiction: Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver, Faber & Faber, 480 pages, hardback, €25.20

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Bad chemistry: Kingsolver has written about the dark side of motherhood before. Picture by David Wood

Bad chemistry: Kingsolver has written about the dark side of motherhood before. Picture by David Wood

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

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Bad chemistry: Kingsolver has written about the dark side of motherhood before. Picture by David Wood

If America is looking for a state-of-the-nation novel, it need look no further than Unsheltered. Set in 1871 and 2016, its historical and contemporary narratives are woven around a house in Vineland, New Jersey. The house - a metaphor for blindly defended belief systems - is structurally unsound, its foundation non-existent. "The simplest thing would be to tear it down," says a contractor in the opening line.

Best known for The Poisonwood Bible - the story of an American missionary family in the Belgian Congo in 1959 - Kingsolver lays her cards on the table from the beginning here. The themes are meaty, the stakes high. Her protagonists - separated by time, linked by place - are each experiencing a financial and existential crisis.

Willa Knox, a fifty-something editor whose magazine has folded, is grappling with her disintegrating house and turbulent family dynamics. Her husband's tenure evaporated when his university closed; he's now underemployed and trying to support five on a $25,000 salary.

Willa's terminally ill, Greek immigrant father-in-law - a man who "probably thinks recycling is a communist plot" - lives with them, as does her son's baby, who has lost his mother to suicide. Her daughter Tig - the novel's most memorable character - dropped out of college to join the Occupy movement and spent a few years in Cuba before moving back in with her parents. Tig is a survivor; she knits, cooks and fixes cars. In a post-apocalyptic situation - and through Tig, Kingsolver foregrounds this possibility - she's the one you'd want around.

In some ways, the present-day sections are reminiscent of The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel about a Midwestern couple and their adult children, but Unsheltered is both more explicitly political and more subtly ironic. Kingsolver is working on many levels - the familial, the historical, the mythical, the dystopian.

In Willa's family, the conflict isn't always between the obvious parties. Tig is kind to her shamelessly racist grandfather, dressing his wounds and changing his adult diapers. Representing a radical alternative to America's economic system, she believes in sustainability, community, barter even - "the responsible thing would be to shrink our bottom line," she says - but she is constantly under attack from her brother, a private investment manager and Ivy League graduate.

As is often the case with dual narratives, the present-day action is more compelling than what happens in the past. The book opens with Willa and though the first chapter is full of expositional dialogue, the length of the novel means Kingsolver gets away with the clunky start.

The 1871 sections follow Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher and proponent of Darwin who is new to Vineland and quickly comes up against the town's conservative forces. Charles Landis, a precursor of the Bullhorn, rules the place, controlling education, housing and the press.

Thatcher is under many kinds of pressure from his aspirational wife but finds moments of respite with his neighbour and kindred spirit, Mary Treat - a real-life 19th-century biologist. But he is being monitored, his job is at risk and when he is summonsed to a public confrontation with those who think evolution is a dirty word, the odds are stacked against him.

He is both less real and more familiar than Willa; versions of his character have appeared in fiction before. In several ways - his inner turmoil, his fascination with Darwin, his relationship with his wife, his tendency to categorise women - he's like Charles Smithson in John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. His story lacks the urgency of Willa's, partly because it's already over and though the evolution debate may be ongoing in some quarters, readers know how it played out.

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Besides the idea of a shared house, Kingsolver uses several devices to link the novel's two strands. Across a divide of almost 150 years and with enough credible distortions, the characters' conflicts and battles are mirrored and echoed. Mary and Thatcher reject creationism; Tig and (ultimately) Willa reject capitalism. The last words of every chapter form the title of the next. Willa discovers the local history museum and becomes obsessed with Mary Treat.

As the two protagonists confront their delusions, clarify their thinking and muster their courage, they emerge as decent and slightly irritating. Thatcher's initial admiration of his shallow wife grates, as does Willa's adoration of her optimistic, ineffectual husband. Willa also favours her bullying son over Tig. Kingsolver has written about the dark side of motherhood before, particularly in her novel Flight Behaviour. In Unsheltered, Willa can't or won't connect with Tig. "Could a mother and child just have bad chemistry?" she wonders.

Flawed as she is, it's impossible not to empathise with Willa: "Taking all the right turns had led her family to the wrong place." And flawed as Unsheltered is, it's impossible not to engage with it. Though it's rooted in America, its themes have universal resonance and it's a hugely satisfying read.


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