What I admire about Barbara Kingsolver’s novels is the way in which she takes on big issues but never preaches. She’s done it again with Flight Behaviour.
Dellarobia, at twenty-eight and after ten years of a lacklustre marriage, is about to take a drastic step. As the book opens she is hiking up the mountain slope that rises up from the Tennessee sheep farm she shares with her channel-surfacing husband, Cub, and her disapproving in-laws. She’s walking out on all of that to meet her young lover. But, up on the wooded slopes, she comes across an extraordinary sight: millions of butterflies hanging from the trees. These Monarchs have settled for the winter in the wrong place, they ought to be in Mexico, why have they come to rest in Tennessee?
The disruption to the migration of these butterflies, disrupts Dellarobia’s ill-thought-through attempt to migrate from her marriage. This is how Kingsolver does it - she pitches you into the personal and the political, the micro and the macro, from the first page. She has you hooked from the start with the plight of Dellarobia and the butterflies. As the story unfolds and Dellarobia’s dilemma is explored, so is that of the butterflies and the larger issue of climate change.
When news of these strange visitors leaks out there begins a debate between all the factions who have an interest: the displaced Mexican family, Dellarobia's in-laws, the local preacher, the media and not least Ovid Byron - he bears an uncanny resemblance to Barrack Obama - who has spent twenty years studying the migration patterns of Monarchs. As Dellarobia becomes involved in assisting Ovid with scientific data collection, so she collects and reviews significant data about her marriage, her lost child and the chance to attend college which she never took.
Kingsolver gives voice to all sides. Through these characters we see the effects of blind faith versus the objective recording and collecting of evidence. She paints a sympathetic portrait of redneck farmers and what they are up against - what can be afforded when living in near poverty? She’s critical of a certain kind of pious eco-campaigner and she dramatises the clash between the media and the scientists - what is the truth? What is known and how does that get communicated?
Questions and characters are tangible as is the landscape. I felt as if I’d been to Tennessee after reading this. I could find my way up that track to where the butterflies hung out as sure as Dellarobia or Ovid; I could smell the sheep in the yard.
My one niggle is that, at times, Kingsolver seemed to tread water, often repeating things we’d already been told. I felt as if I’d seen Cub channelling surfacing far too many times, having got the point after the first two or three mentions. Some scenes seemed over-detailed. But these are nit picks. A novel is never a perfect form, and Kingsolver has achieved so much with this book – a compelling story of family life woven through with the most pressing issue of the day. It is absorbing, thoughtful and entertaining. It’s a couple of weeks since I finished reading it and I find myself still thinking of the characters and the issues.