Sunday, 12 October 2014

Book of the Month: Flight Behaviour (Barbara Kingsolver)

Climate change is the leitmotif of Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel, Flight Behaviour.

When the novel opens we meet Dellarobia Turnbow, its feisty heroine, walking up the pasture behind her house in Southern Appalachia. Dellarobia is a Southerner, born and bred in Appalachians. She is married into a sheep farming family, and has lived with her husband Burley junior—Cub—Turnbow, and their two children—Preston and Cordelia—on the family farm, with her parents-in-law, Hester and Burley senior (appropriately called Bear), living a stone’s throw away. (Dellarobia is in no doubt that her stern, austere and church-going mother-in-law has never warmed up to her.) Life, it would be fair to say, has not exactly been a bed of roses for Dellarobia. Born into a poor family she falls pregnant when she is seventeen. Giving up her ambitions for college education Dellarobia marries Cub (the culprit), and has spent ten years on the farm owned by her parents-in-law. Cub, the only child of his parents, has neither the intellectual wherewithal nor the initiative to strike it out on his own, and is uncomplaining about being treated as a glorified liegeman by his parents. “Bear” is a ship- farmer. He also runs a business of farmyard equipments, while “Cub”, helps his father out, and in his spare time works for a gravel delivery firm as a manual labourer. The Turnbow family, in other words, is a poor Southern family that is not acquainted (or interested in) matters of wider culture or debates; for example, climate change. Stifled, unhappy, disenchanted and adrift, Dellarobia seeks escape from the daily drudgery by seeking out affairs. She has committed mental adultery—falling of the marriage wagon, if only in mind, as she puts it—on a few occasions. And now she has taken the inevitable next step: she has allowed herself to be flattered by the attentions compliments paid to her by a much younger man, a “telephone man” (whose interest in her lies strictly south of he border), and is trudging up the mountain to a secret spot for a secret tryst with the man, knowing fully well that she is risking everything on an impulse; that the affair would be unlikely to remain a secret in the small town, and spell the end of her marriage and ruin her reputation. Is it, then, a stroke of good fortune Dellarobia does not reach her rendezvous? As she is walking up the mountain path Dellarobia notices that brownish clumps, like fungus, are hanging from the branches of the fir trees in the forest; the branches themselves seem alive and writhing. When the path reaches an overlook and Dellarobia looks across the valley to the mountainside in front of her, the landscape suddenly intensifies and brightens, as if the forest is “ablaze with its own internal flames”. The spectacle is strangely moving and fills Dellarobia with an inner joy. She abandons her plans of meeting the telephone man and turns back.

What Dellarobia has mistaken for a forest fire are in fact millions and millions of Monarch butterflies, of unearthly beauty, with their glowing orange wings, who have come to rural Tennessee, instead of Mexico, their customary home for the winter. And the area of the mountain range where the butterflies are clinging to the trunks and branches of the trees in their millions belongs to the Turnbows. Dellarobia does not mention what she has seen upon her return, being not sure what she has seen. She is nevertheless forced to cajole Cub to make a strand and insist that the family should at least have a look at what is happening in that part of the wood when Cub informs her that his father was thinking off logging off all the trees in the wood to a firm in order to pay the debts on his heavy machinery. Cub is also falling behind the mortgage payment on his house. That is when the family discovers that millions of butterflies are roosting in their part of the wood.

The discovery of the Monarch butterflies unleashes events no one in the Turnbow family could have imagined. For a start it catapults Dellarobia to a celebrity status. She is hailed in the local church, enthusiastically proposed by the credulous Cub and agreed (with different degrees of enthusiasm) by other parishioners, as a visionary. The sudden appearance of the Monarch butterflies in Appalachia attracts the usual suspects from different parts of America and world: the environmentalists, curious tourists, hippies, media, the scientists (and the Brits). Pressure begins to pile up on Bear Turnbow when the news leaks that he is planning to sell of the trees for logging which would mean certain death of the butterflies. The entomologist, the “Monarch specialist”, who turns up at the Turnbows’ doorstep with his assistants is one Ovid Byron (who, needless to say, is handsome, sexy, urbane, and, despite being all of this, is not at all condescending towards the Southern hicks; and on whom, needless to say, Dellarobia develops a crush the size of Texas). Different explanations are propagated to explain the sudden appearance of the Monarch butterflies in Appalachia. Why are they here? The general consensus is that whatever the reason behind the Monarchs giving up their natural winter habitat (in Mexico), it is a spectacle of indescribable beauty. Some are inclined to think that it is an act of god; others see an opportunity to develop the area as a tourist centre which would also help the ailing economy of the region. This is the angle exploited by the media who descend on Dellarobia with their questions and, later, edit her replies to suit their agenda. The scientists beg to differ. Ovid Byron and his boffins are unable to share the sunny view and see sinister portents in the arrival of the Monarchs. The Monarchs have flown into Appalachian woods (and possibly other parts of California), they contend, because their natural winter habitat, in Mexico, is no longer suitable because of rising temperatures. The cause? Climate change and deforestation. Far from being a beautiful act of God the flight behaviour of the monarchs is a harbinger of things to come. Byron employs Dellarobia in his makeshift lab as an assistant. The reader traces Dellarobia’s journey towards self-awareness and awareness of wider ecological issues, and her self-discovery. As the six hundred page novel comes to an end Dellarobia takes the inevitable step towards actualizing her potential.

As in Lacuna, her award winning 2009 novel, Kingsolver combines the quotidian with the wider issues confronting our planet with an ease that takes your breath away. The natural phenomena (which provide the ideological theme of the novel) are blended effortlessly with the experiences of the characters (which provide the backbone to the story). The plight of the monarchs, which, for reasons entirely beyond their control, find themselves where they are not supposed to be, is counterpoised superbly with the predicament of Dellarobia who is not at a place where she wants to be and, as adrift as the Monarchs, is searching for moorings. In Flight Behaviour Kingsolver takes on the still amazingly contentious issue of climate change and global warming (amazing because there should be no contention about it; the climate is changing and planet is heating up), and their devastating consequences for our planet. Kingsolver nails her colours to the mast straightaway. The reader is left in no doubt as to where her sympathies lie. Kingsolver does not pussyfoot; she is not mealy-mouthed; the time for subtleties has long since past; as Ovid Byron informs Dellarobia at one stage, the canary is dead. The message the novel delivers is loud and clear; and very persuasive. The wider issue of climate change is combined with the personal story of Dellarobia, which, clichéd and predictable it might be at times, is equally riveting. The poverty, the difficult life led by people in places like Feathertown (the setting of the novel), the limited life opportunities available to them, the patronizing and condescending way in which “the hicks” are often portrayed and viewed by the cognoscenti—it’s all depicted in a series of set-pieces, which, while they are a tad overlong at times (such as Dellarobia’s visit to a “dollarshop” where she is left open-mouthed at the cheap, second-hand tat on display), manage to be convincing and even funny at times. Slightly disappointingly, the ending appears a bit rushed. While the reader does not question the decision Dellarobia takes—indeed the reader may even will her to take that step—it is not explained how she finally plucks the courage to escape the life on the farm with a well-meaning, caring but dull and uninteresting husband.

Flight Behaviour is like a slowburn. The anger and the frustration of Dellarobia build up gradually, and, when Ovid Byron tells a vapid television presenter some hometruths about climate change, the reader fully shares his sense of anger and outrage. This is powerful writing.

One of the many pleasures of reading Flight Behaviour is its sumptuous prose, adorned with caustic wit and pithy observations. Kingsolver gives the reader an authentic feel of the regional language without resorting to writing in the dialect (like most of Faulkner novels, which would have made the experience excruciating for me). 

Flight Behaviour seems like a novel written primarily to disseminate a message of vital importance to our world. The message comes wrapped in an absorbing story-line which engrosses the reader slowly but completely.