Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Flight Behaviour, opens with Dellarobia Turnbow’s headlong flight from her own life, recklessly and rapturously prepared to destroy everything rather than endure any longer. She flees from an accidental marriage and intentional motherhood, grinding poverty, limited horizons and desires unfulfilled. She flees from her nit-picking mother-in-law, Hester, her stubborn father-in-law, Bear, and her inert and well-meaning husband, Cub. Her best friend, Dovey – dry, earthy and just a bit ditsy – is the kindred spirit who reminds Dellarobia of who she used to be before being overwhelmed by simply makings ends meet and keeping the kids from fatal harm.
But, disappointingly, Flight Behaviour is not about Dellarobia or the complex ecosystem of her family and friends. Instead, she is the literary cover for a polemic about climate change. The Turnbow family farm in the Appalachian Mountains has been battered by a series of extreme weather events. After the decision is made to clear-fell the forest to meet a looming loan payment, Dellarobia discovers the trees are dripping with the millions of migrating monarch butterflies sent off course by environmental changes in their usual wintering grounds in Mexico. The winter snows now threaten the species with extinction, their own apocalyptic end of days.
A team of scientists arrives to document the breakdown of the continental ecosystem and Dellarobia assists them, encouraged by a steady income and a crush on the tall and darkly handsome Dr Ovid Byron. Her subsequent environmental education becomes the means by which her family and community are made aware of the disaster that already besets them, frightening truths from which they are in full and reckless flight.
Her sometimes reluctant awakening to her place in a wider world is also the clumsy vehicle by which Kingsolver sets out to similarly educate the reader. Characters talk intently in prolonged question and answer sessions; they read weighty books and explain the rarified terms they find there; they inform each other, implore each other, lecture, preach and hector each other and, by extension, the reader, too.
Flight Behaviour is heavy-handed on all fronts, overplaying its social message and asking its metaphors to carry more weight than the story can bear. Kingsolver’s usually acute emotional pitch, sensitively drawn characters and compelling storytelling are lost to the urgency of her convictions. This is for the already converted, both to Kingsolver and to her cause.
FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR, by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber and Faber, $39.99).
Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.