Like its protagonist Dellarobia, a bored Appalachian housewife and mother of two who has grown frustrated and unfulfilled by the narrow experiences offered to her by past choices and present obligations, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour undergoes something of an identity crisis. Nominated for the Women’s Prize alongside such hyped heavyweights as Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies and Zadie Smith’s NW, Kingsolver’s eighth novel for large parts of its not-inconsiderable length more than competes in that much-heralded company: indeed, at times it is more humane and gentle than Mantel, more unified and singular than Smith. It is a big book in terms of its purpose as well as its girth, since its preoccupations of class and climate change feel vital and urgent; it is delicately written and keenly imagined, in particular finding a rare kind of demotic poetry in its description of the natural world. Flight Behaviour has a great deal to recommend it – and yet I left it somehow unsatisfied.
We first meet Dellarobia, who over the course of almost six hundred pages grows confounding and difficult in the way all the best-realised characters must, on one of the slopes of Appalachia, about to meet her adulterous lover. What she discovers instead, as she flees the scene of her would-be tryst before it has even begun, turns out to be a far more substantial agent of change: butterflies. Hundreds, thousands, of monarch butterflies, driven off their annual course by climate change. Instead of arriving in Mexico as they do every year, the majority of the world’s monarch population have settled in land owned by the family of Dellarobia’s passive husband, tellingly referred to as Cub in deference to his father, known as Bear. What ensues is a battle for the land which Bear has ear-marked for sale to a logging company in order to meet the debts his failing farm can no longer pay; for Dellarobia, the visiting scientists and journalists who come to document and report this botched migration offer a surer contrast to her life of discount supermarkets and penny-pinching rural poverty than any affair.
“All human endeavour bent itself to the same lost cause,” we learn halfway through the novel [pg. 298], and ostensibly Kingsolver refers to the quest for security, the human desire for equilibrium and periods blessedly, impossibly, free of change. Flight Behaviour, with its marooned monarchs and bankrupted farmers, writes large and small the change being wrought upon our world by man-made climactic disasters. “In Victoria hundreds of people burned to death in one month, so many their prime minister called it hell on earth,” Dellarobia learns from Ovid Byron, a leading ecologist who visits her backyard to track the monarchs to whom he has dedicated his life. “This has not happened before. There is not an evacuation plan.” [pg. 398] But in that stark summary of the world’s dilemma, we see, too, the other end to which human endeavour is bent in futility: escape. “Mistakes wreck your life,” Dellarobia shrugs towards the end of the book. “But they make what you have. It’s kind of all one.” [pg. 529] We are all of us making do.
There is something trite about these shibboleths on which Flight Behaviour ends, however. Dellarobia shakes free of her pragmatic but loveless marriage; she learns dark secrets about her family’s past; she accepts that the crush she has harboured for Ovid is irrelevant next to the power of the love he has for his wife. These standard tropes of the rural romance are employed to support the elements of science fiction which convey the urgency of the novel’s climate change thread: “We are at the top of Niagara Falls, Tina, in a canoe,” Ovid snaps at a demagogic TV journalist in an exchange which goes viral on YouTube. “We got here by drifting, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around.” [pg. 507] His words act as a catalyst less for the public perception of climate change and more for Dellarobia’s personal transformation; there is an attempt to wrap one in the other, perhaps to make each more palatable or powerful. In fact, they begin to stand in each other’s way.
Flight Behaviour is a long novel with a short story: butterflies are found in an insular community, disruptive external elements arrive, a change is made. At times, the book can feel unecessarily discursive. At others, it feels barely as if it is scratching the surface of its weight themes: a scene in which Dellarobia and Cub go shopping feels simultaneously like the most important kind of social realism (“Why is the girl’s stuff more expensive?” [pg. 218]) and yet also over-extended and off-piste (“like channel-surfing the Hillbilly Network” [pg. 223]). Kingsolver spends a lot of time building into the novel the same blind routines and endlessly-deferred crises which have come to characterise Dellarobia’s life and also our response to climate change, and in theory this makes a good deal of sense; in practice, however, it renders Flight Behaviour dilatory and a little confused.
If anything, the novel is an argument for action, for facing facts and acting upon them – and also for the role of truth-speaking in that context. “It seemed to Dellarobia that the task of science was a good deal larger that [to measure and count]. Someone had to explain things.” [pg. 337] Ovid, clumsily depicted with with an odd emphasis on his Jamaican accent, comes into his own only when he abandons professional detachment and advocates for particular responses; likewise, inertia and delicacy lock Dellarobia’s family life into sterile patterns that benefit nobody. The trick is to recognise that and make the necessary adjustments. “People hang on for dear life to […] the fool they are right now,” Dellarobia muses [pg. 542], in silent condemnation of Flight Behaviour‘s many examples of water-treading. It’s hard not to feel, however, that the novel’s split personality works against this argument for urgency. Flight Behaviour reads diffusely, and when it does pick up towards its end – “she saw the pointlessness of clinging to that life raft, that hooray-we-are-saved conviction of having already come through the stupid parts” [pg. 543] – the victories come so quickly and easily that they appear not to matter at all.
This might be all part of Kingsolver’s purpose. Flight Behaviour posits, after all, a difficult future (“the place where a species met its demise” is how Dellarobia comes to describe her town [pg. 377]), and argues that even action in the face of climate change can only lead to the next set of Hobson’s choices. Whatever its success in aligning its various elements, it is a very often beautiful novel, adopting an expansive, elegiac tone which is maintained throughout almost to perfection. Where its various moving parts jostle gratingly for position, it might also be said that Kingsolver aims for messiness and difficulty – she describes in an afterword the work of 350.org as the “most important […] in the world, and the most unending” [pg. 599]. Hers is not a pat book because there are no pat answers. This, though, is precisely the difficulty: with its occasional foray into allegory, and the almost wilfully generic elements of its chosen romance mode, Kingsolver’s chosen milieu is often rather more schematic than her politics. It’s a curious juxtaposition which make this novel very much worth reading, but leaves the reader less at the top of Niagara Falls than they are at sea.