Monday, 28 January 2013

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

I read so many fantastic books during 2012, adult and children’s fiction both, that to pick one as ‘the best’ is an impossible task. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, though, would have to be near the top. Kingsolver is an award-winning author, perhaps most famous for The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, both of which I own but have yet to read. Flight Behaviour is her latest offering and, following the hideous weather patterns exerted upon us over recent weeks and months, its theme of climate and global warming is exceedingly apt.

Kingsolver’s storytelling is extraordinary. This is not a book full of scientific terms and global warming doom-mongering; instead it subtly reveals the small everyday impacts of  real climate change, things that each on their own may not seem like a global catastrophe, but when added to the whole, show an entirely new picture. This is a book about hard-working people, the lives they lead, and the judgments they - and we - make.

Dellarobia is a young mother trapped into her life by a series of poor choices and bad luck.  Pregnant as a teenager, she married her child’s father to become the farmer’s wife, effectively entrapped by her judgemental and controlling in-laws. This is the Bible belt, the farming belt; hicktown, the people at the bottom of the pile. Every day is jeopardy in her life, the farm is failing, her marriage is failing, it’s an economic showdown and the future is questionable. It almost seems like kismet, then, when she discovers what appears to be a miracle on her mountainside. The moment of its discovery is enough to save her from another bad decision; perhaps it will be enough to save the farm too? But this ‘beautiful and terrible marvel of nature’ is tragically representative of greater, worldwide issues. Climate change was already in Dellarobia’s backyard in the shape of storms and torrential rains eating away at the farmland and her family’s traditional farming practices; they just didn’t know that that was what it was. The ‘miracle on the mountain’, though, introduces the idea with a certainty that makes it inescapable.

Equal parts social study and middle finger to climate skeptics, Flight Behaviour also touches on consumerism, greens, politics, soft racism. Some might say Kingsolver tries too much, but I think she has gotten the balance just right. Through Dellarobia’s eyes the absurdity of many modern lifestyles and attitudes are highlighted, whilst Ovid, the scientist who turns up to study Dellarobia’s miracle, uses quiet language and clever metaphors to demystify media and skeptic-generated global warming confusion. His likening of global temperature rise to a child’s fever stands out, as does his and Dellarobia’s discussion of the ability to believe in things you can’t see: “A photo cannot prove a child is growing, but several of them show change over time.”

One of best parts is perhaps Dellarobia’s run-in with a man named Leighton Akins, who’s made it his mission to get people to sign a sustainability pledge to reduce their carbon footprint. When he reads the pledge’s suggestions to her, it quickly becomes apparent how absurd the lifestyle assumptions are. In most categories listed, Dellarobia and her family already comply completely, simply out of a necessity of survival. They cannot afford to eat out, so taking tupperware to a restaurant for leftovers is hardly relevant; ditto for the use of bottled water and the purchase of red meat. “Find your local re-use stores,” he tells her - but she only shops in second-hand stores anyway; ‘new’ is an unimaginable luxury.

Dellarobia’s fight to save her mountain miracle, and everything she learns about the world and about herself along the way, reflects the fight she is in to save herself, her marriage, her children. Is it all worth it? Throughout, Kingsolver weaves together her different strands into a carefully considered tapestry, before winding up her story and then - wham, hits us with a dramatic and mind-reeling end that serves to make us question everything the future has to hold.

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