Dellarobia Turnbow gave up her college plans aged seventeen following an unexpected pregnancy. Now, married to the unremarkable Cub with two children living in a too small house on her in-laws’s farm, Dellarobia is unsatisfied and on the precipice of destruction. As she chases romance in the Appalachia Mountains she comes across a sight so remarkable ‘a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone’ and she realises she can save herself: ‘It was not too late to undo this mess’. Dellarobia has discovered a Monarch butterfly colony, whose usual migratory pattern has been disrupted following landslides in Mexico and she finds herself at the centre of an environmental catastrophe or miracle, depending on your point of view. As her family, friends, church and community come to terms with the arrival of the butterflies, Dellarobia has to confront truths about herself and those around her that change the world she’s living in.
Flight Behaviour is a remarkable novel that dissects society’s attitudes towards climate change and the motives that drive personal choice. The story is set in a fictional town in Bible-belt Tennessee where the local population is mostly portrayed as uneducated and severely sceptical of the veracity of climate change, dismissing most natural phenomena as God’s work. Into this society drops a stark reminder of the urgency and drama involved in not taking the climate seriously. The fall out is dramatic, not only for Dellarobia who finds herself at the centre of a media circus and seen as a producer of miracles in her local church, but for her family who are intent on logging the mountain to meet financial obligations thus destroying the last hope of a species close to extinction. Into this maelstrom comes Ovid Byron, a charismatic black scientist, who stirs feelings in Dellarobia that she would rather keep buried. Kingsolver’s prose weaves a richly layered tapestry illustrating the connectedness of the individual, family and society mirroring the interdependency of climate, environment and ecology.
Although this reviewer loved this novel, I expect that others may not be so generous. At times Kingsolver can fall into preachiness in the often large sections explaining the science around the butterflies’ migratory patterns and climate change and also the blinkered view of the local population who don’t come out too well. I suspect that it is the latter point that could rankle those living on the other side of the Atlantic. The local red necks are, with the exception of Dellarobia, sometimes portrayed as dim witted fools only out to serve themselves. Having said that, however, this is an intelligent novel about a subject that not only polarises people, but one that can cause many to glaze over, relegating contemplation and action to another day. Kingsolver doesn’t allow her readers that luxury: instead she portrays a small town in the grip of unusually aggressive weather invaded by a species in absolute crisis right in the here and now, not in some magical future time when we’ll be able to cope. What makes this a good novel in the end is that this isn’t just a drumbeat for the environmentalists, but a human story of love, desperation, family and survival in a fast changing and unpredictable world. Kingsolver’s incisive emotional insight into family relationships and marriage elevates this story into a wonderful tale of the human condition and in the end we root for all of the characters, even the dullard Cub.
Any Cop?: Kingsolver doesn’t shy away from dealing with uncomfortable and difficult subjects and hasn’t done so here. Having strong opinions will always mean that some people won’t like what you have to say, but the brave should and do stand up and say it anyway. This is an important novel for many reasons, but it’s also a gripping and powerful story of a woman whose personal crisis changes not only her own life, but the lives of everyone around her. Fabulous.