The novelist, essayist and poet Barbara Kingsolver has been a giant of American literature since her fifth work of fiction, The Poisonwood Bible (1998). It’s an astonishing novel, and astonishingly good – especially in the subtle, engrossing way Kingsolver allows the reader to uncover the story of her American missionary family working in Africa through the rotating points of view of Orleanna Price and her four daughters. The reader never hears directly from the fundamentalist, dangerous husband and father, Nathan, but Kingsolver’s skill enables us to know him through the shadow he casts on the lives of her narrators, even and especially when each of them sees Nathan differently. It’s a brilliant technique, perfectly executed. Recently, though, Kingsolver has given up on subtle and engrossing in favour of the deliberate and didactic.
Her new novel, Unsheltered, is set in Vineland, New Jersey, a real place founded by Charles Landis, property mogul and big thinker, who designed it as a dry, utopian agricultural community. Kingsolver’s two storylines are set in a house at the same address, the important and metaphorical “shelter” of the title. The present-day story is about Willa Knox, a freelance former magazine editor, and her family: underemployed academic husband Iano, Wall-Street wannabe son Zeke, activist daughter Tig, and terminally ill and racist father-in-law Nick – as well as Zeke’s infant son. The four generations are living together, caught in the contemporary American nightmare of insecure employment, worthless real estate, crushing student debt, unaffordable and unavailable healthcare, and recurrent once-in-a-century weather events. Their sole asset is an inherited house in Vineland, so they move there only to find the house is anything but solid: built without proper foundations, it’s falling down around them. (Metaphor alert.)
Living in the same spot in the late 1800s is Thatcher Greenwood, a newly wed science teacher. He lives with a Rosamond to his Tertius, his vacant, spendthrift wife, Rose, her snobby mother and spirited younger sister. The house was left to the women by Rose’s late father and Thatcher tries to explain that it’s structurally unsound, but they are in denial. Thatcher is not a fighter but he’s pulled into other battles, too: both the town’s founder, Landis, and Thatcher’s boss disapprove of Thatcher’s newfangled science, especially his Darwinian tendencies. It’s 40-odd years before the Scopes Trial and in Vineland, if it’s not in the Bible, it’s fake news. The bright spot in Thatcher’s life is his friendship with his next-door neighbour, scientist Mary Treat. Another historical figure, Treat’s appreciation of the natural world inspires Thatcher, and her diligence and devotion shame him.
The parallels between Willa’s and Thatcher’s alternating chapters are many, and those that are subtle among the best parts of the novel. One small flourish is that the last phrase in one chapter becomes the theme and title of the next. This detail provides more than set dressing. It’s a reflection of Kingsolver’s belief in the continuity of experience and the commonalities in our daily struggles, regardless of the century. When the linkages become more and more solid, though, they position Kingsolver’s story as an intricate teaching aid rather than a work of fiction. Here’s Thatcher, in the 1800s, despairing of the anti-Darwinian frenzy he’d witnessed: “… the crude effigy dangling from a noose, the monkey’s tail pinned to the stuffed trousers, the murderous crowd chanting Lock him up!” We get it.
Kingsolver is very good at fiction but as soon as a character opens their mouth to make a point, the delicate suspension of disbelief that enables characters to come to life is over. Zeke says, “New technologies have a transformative impact on economic output, and eventually that will rebound. Supply and demand is a law, like physics. If you go too fast, your car overheats and you slow down”, as part of a long debate with his sister about economics. Willa even notices: she wonders “how many tuition dollars they’d invested in this conversation, and whether she could get a refund”. Thatcher, over a hundred years earlier, isn’t spared, either. He explains to the townsfolk furious at his allegiance to science in a debate about natural selection: “William of Occam was a man of God, a Franciscan friar in the fourteenth century. He argued that a complex explanation, when it does not hold water, will always grow more complex as it attempts to patch its own holes …”
That Kingsolver’s brilliance manages to shine through in a number of spots despite the weight she makes her characters carry is a testament to her skill. Her Mary Treat is a source of energy and surprise in this pointed work. And there’s a murder, which provides some late narrative drive, but again even this real-life event is approached like a parable.
In Unsheltered, the source of Willa’s (and her generation’s) inability to engage with the challenges before us is clear. ‘’Uh-oh,” Tig says. “Mom’s having a visitation from the Ghost of Capitalist Fantasies Past.” Just as the residents of Vineland are blind to the approaching tide of Darwinian science, so we are to our impending environmental, economic and social crises. Of the denial of science in Thatcher’s time, Willa thinks: “… the gentle Victorians of Vineland, and America for that matter, had shit for brains … The old paradigm was an obsolete shell; the writing on the wall was huge. They just wouldn’t read.” It’s the same right now. It’s up to Tig and her friends, the resourceful, adaptive millennials, to save us, if there’s still time.
Kingsolver is clearly committed to the struggles she identifies in Unsheltered, and also to her method. Together with PEN America, she awards the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, for unpublished manuscripts that address issues of social justice. As a sociopolitical analysis of global warming, the housing crisis, the rise of fascism and the failures of capitalism, Unsheltered achieves its goals. Characters lecturing each other is not good fiction, though, regardless of the author’s intentions. Kingsolver has forgotten the lessons of her Poisonwood Bible: sermonising is not the way to convert an unbeliever. LS
Faber, 480pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered". Subscribe here.