Barbara Kingsolver writes beautiful measured novels and Flight Behaviour is no exception. Though slow out of the blocks, Kingsolver gradually binds her threads together to form an utterly compelling whole.
Dellarobia Turnbow steps out from her back door intent on wrecking her marriage. For ten years she has lived a humdrum existence on her husband’s family farm. She is heading for a secret tryst with a young telephone engineer, but in small town Tennessee can anything be kept secret? On her way she is stopped in her tracks by a natural wonder, a valley of fire. She returns to her home, glad of the wake up call, and her narrow escape from infidelity.
The Turnbow farm is struggling to survive. The recession has hit hard, wiping out the farm’s meager profits. When her father-in-law decides he is going to allow a logging company to decimate his land’s trees Dellarobia feels obliged to speak out. She exhorts her husband, Cub, to take look over the land. When he does Cub discovers the same unnatural wonder as his wife. Convinced that Dellarobia has had a vision, Cub blurts out in church what they have seen. A wondrous sight on private land suddenly becomes public property.
Flight Behaviour is about so many things it’s hard to know where to start. At its heart is the interaction between three distinct groups of people. The media, who want to present the phenomenon in a way that will generate as many ratings as possible, the scientists, who want to present only the facts, and the farmers, who must do what’s needed to preserve their livelihoods. Dellarobia sits in two camps. She is a farmer’s wife, reliant on the farm turning a profit, but she yearns for more. Can she use her brush with science to kick-start a life arrested by an unwanted teenage pregnancy?
The book is filled with fabulous beauty. The wilderness and Dellarobia’s discovery are described in rich detail. Counterpoint to the beauty is the heartache and harsh reality of lives spent hovering around the breadline. The World’s media is often disparaging of Bible Belt Republicans, but Kingsolver’s depiction of them is compassionate and heartfelt.
As a father who, fortunately, has never had to worry about where my family’s next meal is coming from, I found Dellarobia’s struggle to feed her children particularly affecting. There is one section where she and Cub are trying to find Christmas presents that left me emotionally wrung out. It encapsulates the plight of countless families in the world’s richest economy.
Ultimately, this novel is about the fragility of existence. Whether it be a farm, a marriage or an entire ecosystem, continued survival is a fine balance of uncountable variables. Even the most innocuous changes could mean extinction. Flight Behaviour is an understated novel, rich in language and themes. It’s by no means a page turner but it is a powerful meditation on twenty-first century morals and the difficulties of balancing what is best for the planet against what is best for humanity. Flight Behaviour sees Kingsolver at the height of her powers and once again she has delivered an authentic meaningful and compelling read.
One final word about the cover. Whoever commissioned it wants shooting. This a work of surpassing beauty, but the cover looks like it was knocked up on someone’s home computer. A few wispy trees with gold leaves badly superimposed over the top. It’s not remotely convincing (though it looks much better in the picture here). Considering the wonder instilled by the book’s central phenomenon the cover is unforgivable.
Many Thanks to Lauren at Faber for providing me with a review copy of this book.