REVIEW | Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver


Gillian McAinsh reviews Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Thoughtful readers who care about the environment are likely to sit up when American novelist Barbara Kingsolver brings out a new book.
The themes of caring for our environment and pushing back against the darker side of capitalism often emerge in her work and do so again in her magnificent work Unsheltered.
Kingsolver has taken the bare bones of history and bent them into the present day setting of Vineland in New Jersey.
Heading back to the late 1870s, she takes town founder and one-time mayor Charles Landis and renowned botanist Mary Treat, and embellishes on the known facts.
She then creates the fictional character of science teacher Thatcher Greenwood who strives to bring a new curriculum to the Vineland school.
In the process, Thatcher gets to meet both Treat and Landis, although only one – significantly – becomes a friend.
In the modern view of the same place it is now a Trump-governed land and Willa is the main protagonist – a woman who has been blown into a tumble-down home with her rag-tag family of husband, adult daughter, father-in-law and a motherless grandchild.
Their stories are told in layers and chapters which alternate past with present.
It would not be a Kingsolver book if there was not some tub-thumping but fortunately the characters are so well drawn that the reader is willing to listen to the expositions of their views.
For Thatcher in the late 1800s, the issues include Darwin’s theory of evolution and his battle to get ignorant townspeople to act on reason rather than emotion.
For Willa in 2016, the concerns are family dynamics amidst the loss of financial security, despite years of education and hard work.
Both Thatcher and Willa live in what may be the same crumbling house 150 years apart, cracking around their ears and giving literal resonance to the “unsheltered” of the title.
This threat of losing one’s protective shell is reiterated throughout the novel with the dust jacket reading “without shelter we stand in daylight. Without shelter, we feel ourselves likely to die”.
Despite a disclaimer that no character in the book is based on a real person in the 21st century, it is blindingly clear the Bullhorn in Willa’s chapters is Trump, although Kingsolver wisely does try to starve him of gratuitous publicity.
The reader will also pick up modern parallels with the venal narcissist who was the “president” of Vineland in Thatcher’s time.
As daughter Tig explains, this man is a type found all over the US and particularly in government. Rapacious greed is the new normal and people vote for political parties which give the populace the illusion that they too can be as rich as these leaders.
And, is it so different in SA? It is hard to feel compassion for the foul-mouthed right-winger of a father-in-law but he plays his part in representing a sizeable chunk of the voting public.
Her female characters Willa and Tig are at the heart of the novel, with big brother Zeke and handsome academic father Iano making up the family.
As Willa gradually realises that she is losing her shelter, so she – and the reader – realise that this may in fact be a liberating experience rather than the catastrophe it at first seemed.
The 19th century protagonists are also wonderful and it is hard not to love Thatcher, a modest man who holds fast to his integrity when all around him are swayed by greed or self-interest.
Unsheltered is hence a political piece although, as always, Kingsolver’s prose is accessible and fluid.
There is the content and also the context of a Kingsolver novel and the author is fully at ease telling compelling stories.
She links the two narratives by ending one chapter with a word of phrase that signposts the theme of the next.
Both Willa and Thatcher have a hard journey but find a freedom which comes with being unsheltered, as only once your walls have collapsed and your roof has fallen through can you see the blue sky beyond.
I loved Unsheltered, from start to finish. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is published by Faber and Faber..

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