Formerly known as the Orange Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually and ‘celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world’. We delve into the third of the six shortlisted novels – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour.
Kingsolver is no stranger to the British literary award for women writers. In 2010, the American novelist beat out Hilary Mantel – incidentally, another finalist in this year’s shortlist – and Lorrie Moore to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction in its previous incarnation.
Not one to shy away from the themes of social justice, biodiversity and the interaction between humans and the environments in which they live in, Kingsolver’s latest novel revolves around the peculiar presence of the beautiful monarch butterflies in Feathertown – symptomatic of the larger cataclysm of climate change – as it traces the life of Dellarobia Turnbow before and after she discovered the advent of the butterflies.
Just as fellow Women’s Prize for Fiction finalist Zadie Smith chose her home turf of North West London as the basis of her novel NW, Kingsolver sets Flight Behaviour in her Tennessean home region of Appalachia.
Readers are first introduced to the novel’s protagonist Dellarobia as she trudges up a mountain to a secluded hunting shed where she will, for the first time, engage in a secret tryst with a man who is not her simple sheep farmer husband Cub. Forced into marriage after an accidental pregnancy as a teenager, Dellarobia leads a bridled life shackled by two children, unable to follow her ambitions, and subject to the whims of in-laws who actively control her and Cub’s livelihoods.
Preoccupied with lustful thoughts and barely concealed misgivings as she thinks of her children Cordelia and Preston, Dellarobia is stopped in her tracks when she witnesses a gargantuan swathe of butterflies, at first mistaking them for a valley cloaked in an orange flame, and experiences a near epiphany.
The forest blazed with its own internal flame. ‘Jesus,’ she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense.
Concealing the sight of her miraculous encounter from those closest to her, Dellarobia inadvertently outs herself and emerges as a messiah when she urges her husband to inspect the forest after discovering that her father-in-law is intent on logging the forest for urgently needed cash.
The ramifications of the butterflies’ arrival accompany a more personal transformation that grounds the novel – Dellarobia’s metamorphosis from a reluctant god-fearing Christian who relied on the flimsy age-old adage ‘God works in mysterious ways’ into a protégé of Harvard-trained entomologist Ovid Byron who is intent on discovering why the butterflies are in Feathertown.
After initially perceiving the arrival of the butterflies as a miracle, Dellarobia begins to see them for what they really are – a calamitous distortion of life’s natural order.
While Dellarobia’s observations of life in a small American town often come across as astute, intelligent and often wry, Kingsolver is less successful when it comes to weaving her climate change premise into the story. Lengthy sections of scientific reasoning and technical jargon clumsily pepper the later half of the book – predominantly in conversations between Ovid and Dellarobia – but instead of piquing one’s interest in the subject, they come across as exceedingly laboured and clunky, and detract from the brilliant writing found in other parts of the novel.
Clichés abound – particularly again in exchanges between Ovid and Dellarobia as well as a heated confrontation between Ovid and a pesky journalist who disbelieves global warming – with both too superficially constructed to bring about any real sense of urgency, media exploitation or opportunism.
Sorry, I am a doctor of natural systems. And this looks terminal to me.
Similarly, the occasional use of internet speak and slang such as ‘b-t-dubs’ haphazardly woven into the conversations that transpire between Dellarobia and her best friend Dovey is grating at the best of times and too inconsistent to convey any real sense of authenticity.
That aside, Kingsolver expertly portrays the tensions of class, poverty, religion, race and climate change in a small town through choice passages throughout. In one of the most entertaining and illuminating excerpts of the novel, climate change activist Leighton Akins interviews Dellarobia on what her family does to reduce their carbon footprint. Dellarobia unwittingly reveals a lower class too poor and concerned with staying afloat to produce as much pollution as the privileged middle-class eco-campaigners.
‘Number one. Bring your own Tupperware to a restaurant for leftovers, as often as possible.’
‘I’ve not eaten at a restaurant in two years.’
‘Jesus. Are you serious? May I ask why?’
While the novel is effective in illuminating the grave danger climate change poses to the future survival of certain species, the complex ways in which humans draw upon and influence their environments, and the poverty that afflicts the lower classes, too often it is blighted by unconvincing intimations and unwieldy storytelling.