‘Flight Behaviour’ by Barbara Kingsolver ****

I have really enjoyed the books of Kingsolver’s which I’ve read in the past – The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible are excellent – but although she is an author on my radar, I somehow rarely get around to picking up any of her other titles. I changed this when I purchased a remainder copy of her 2012 novel, Flight Behaviour, which blends a fictional story with real concerns about climate change, and ecology.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a young woman living on a ‘failing farm’ in the Appalachian region of Tennessee. She lives in a small house with her husband, Cub, and two young children, six-year-old Preston and two-year-old Cordelia, on the Turnbow family’s land. Bored of her life, and the constant struggle to provide for her family, Dellarobia ‘impulsively seeks out an affair’ with a man living in the local town. The novel’s opening immediately caught my attention. Kingsolver writes: ‘A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.’

On the day she finally walks out, and heads up the closest mountain peak to meet him, she finds something far more remarkable: ‘a beautiful and terrible marvel of nature’. On the trees all around, which her husband’s family have been considering logging for some time, are enormous clusters of monarch butterflies.

Dellarobia’s world is a small one: she has ‘not slept outside’ her home in more than a decade of marriage, the local town is one which she rarely visits, and she has not had a meal out in over two years. That is, until she discovers the butterflies. At first, she cannot understand what she is seeing. When she mentions the phenomenon, and takes her husband and his mother a couple of days afterwards, we are told: ‘They rounded the bend to the overlook and came into the full sight of it. Then golden darts filled the whole of the air, swirling like leaves in a massive storm. Wings… Butterflies… The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered with trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies… The fire was alive, and incomprehensibly immense, an unbounded, uncountable congregation of flame-coloured insects.’

The town soon becomes obsessed with the butterflies, and many come to believe that ‘saint’ Dellarobia had a religious vision of the ‘miracle’. The monarchs present an opportunity for tourism, something which had been previously unknown in the area. After a television crew comes to film Dellarobia and the butterflies, a scientist – the rather wonderfully named Ovid Byron, lepidopterist and lecturer – arrives, intent on studying why the monarchs have moved, en masse, to Tennessee instead of their usual wintering grounds in Mexico, and the implications this may have for the species. He returns with a team of researchers from his University, to look into the ‘alarming question’ of this changing migration. In a way, these scientists open Dellarobia’s eyes to more, and better, possibilities: ‘Her life was unfolding into something larger by the day, like one of those rectangular gas-station maps that open out to the size of a windshield.’

The setting is one of the real strengths of this novel. Kingsolver herself lives on a farm in southern Appalachia, and understands the region’s geography, and the concerns of its inhabitants, many of which seem insular and uncaring to a reader on the outside. She is highly aware of small-town life; in the first paragraph, Kingsolver reflects that if Dellarobia did choose to run away from her family, her ‘decision would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them.’ One is immediately aware of how constrained Dellarobia feels, and how stifling the community around her: ‘They would say the same thing she’d heard her mother-in-law tell Cub: that Dellarobia was a piece of work. As if she were lying on pieces on a table, pins stuck here and there, half assembled from a Simplicity pattern that was flawed at the manufacturer’s. Which piece had been left out?’

Flight Behaviour is an immersive novel from the start. Throughout, Kingsolver is highly insightful about her protagonist, and what she chooses to hide from others: ‘She felt out of control in some new way, unfixable, unless she could fold her life back into its former shape; pre-Turnbow family Sideshow, premarriage, back to being just one kid trying to blaze her own trail. It was exhausting, to keep being sorry for everything.’ The portrait of Dellarobia is intricate and thoughtful, and her character arc is a believable one, particularly with regard to her growing education. Kingsolver knows Dellarobia intimately; her innermost thoughts and feelings come to the fore throughout. When she begins to understand that climate change is happening, and may well be irreversible, she begins to worry, constantly, about the future, especially with regard to her children: ‘[She] felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge. People had to manage terrible truths.’

Kingsolver trained as a biologist, and worked as a scientist; as one would therefore expect, the scientific detail contained within Flight Behaviour is impeccable, and impressively thorough. I have not read a novel as involved with environmental issues in such a long time, and this effort has made me want to seek more out in the near future. I especially liked the way in which its focus is placed on one single ecological event, with tendrils of consequences which stretch out from it as the novel goes on.

I am also pleased that I have so much of Kingsolver’s oeuvre left to read. Whilst she focuses on stories driven by her characters, and the geography in which they live, the books which I have read to date all feel very different. I will admit that Flight Behaviour, at around 600 pages, did take a relatively long time to read, but it forces one to contemplate so many enormous concepts that this felt necessary. It feels very up to date, despite being almost ten years old; this is perhaps due to the real urgency in the prose. Given the themes, this is a really serious, and sometimes scary, novel to read, but it is one which I would highly recommend.

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