Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review: “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

A new book by a favourite author is always a treat. I had an audio credit from Kobo, so I did not even have to wait for the library or the paperback. So far so good. 


I love Barbara Kingsolver, both as an author and as a human being. She is one of the few writers whose books I will reread. Her writing is beautiful and often lyrical. From the very beginning her books have been about more than just characters unfolding in private life. In the words of the author herself: 


“My interest is human behaviour, and the complex ways we do or don’t come 

to terms with ourselves, our societies, and our habitats.” (From an interview in Psychology Today)


I like that. These days I have little interest in fiction that ignores economic and historical reality. The intersection between the individual and the collective is what holds my attention. 


First, a word about the voice performance. This is an important factor in an audio version.  Barbara Kingsolver reads her own work. Her voice is pleasant, her reading OK, but she is no actor. In particular the voice she gives to the 19th century botanist Mary Treat, a real historic character, is a hesitating whine that does not jibe with the feisty non conformist that the book portrays.


Otherwise the novel is off to a promising start. 

The family at the heart of the story has fallen on hard times, in spite of being well educated and spending decades doing all the right things. Mom Willa used to be a successful writer for magazines. Those things in print with the glossy ads that you bought every week, remember them? Her magazine has folded. Dad Iano is an academic who has been chasing tenure from one college to another.  When he finally achieves security the college itself closes on him.  Dad lands an entry level job in Philadelphia at the same time that Mom inherits a crumbling Victorian house in Vineland, New Jersey. The couple relocates to Vineland, a town with an interesting history. They are already encumbered with Iano’s ailing father, a bitter Greek immigrant. In short order they are joined by their college drop out daughter and the newborn baby of their son. Four generations, one entry level job, five dependents.


Next chapter: Moving-in day in the same location by a different family but more than a century earlier. Newly married Thatcher Greenwood has accepted a job as science teacher in the Vineland School. His family consists of his wife Rose, her widowed mother and her teenage sister. Looking across the street Thatcher observes the scandalous sight of a middle aged woman lying prone in the grass, apparently studying something.

She turns out to be Mary Treat, a real historical figure. Mary was a self taught botanist who corresponded with the great scientists of her day including Charles Darwin. From then on chapters on the lives of the two families alternate. 


I found this structure irritating. Until we get to the very end, when 21 century Willa develops a fascination with Mary Treat, the only overlap between the two strands is concern for the house. One just gets into one story line and is then whisked away to the other. 


Barbara Kingsolver often uses her novels as a platform from which to hold forth on topics dear to her heart. It works better some times than others. In this novel it works in the chapters set in the nineteenth century. The reader learns effortlessly about the history of Vineland, the biologist Mary Treat, the resistance to the teachings of science and the flora of the Jersey Pine barrens. Kingsolver is at her warm, lyrical best when she describes natural wonders.


I felt irritated by the same ploy in the twenty-first century. The characters feel one dimensional and mere tools for expounding on the horrors of declining capitalism. Barbara, I love you. Next time you want to write some articles, just do it, you don’t have to build a novel around them.






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