Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver – review

Climate change fears are given wings in Barbara Kingsolver's well observed Appalachian tale

Attempting to escape her empty marriage and the drudgery of life on a rundown Appalachian farm, Dellarobia Turnbow heads for an assignation that accidentally transforms her life. En route to a tryst with a lover, she stumbles on a hillside covered with swathes of orange monarch butterflies that appear like fire on the landscape.

"The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky."

The monarchs' majestic, and mysterious, appearance distracts Dellarobia from her illicit assignation and in the process, the would-be "Tennessee temptress" achieves internet fame as the discoverer of a phenomenon that confounds human understanding of butterfly migration. For monarchs to attempt to overwinter far from the heat of the south is unprecedented. Locals view their arrival as a message from God. Entomologist Ovid Byron, a gifted African-American researcher who comes to investigate, puts the blame on a very different agent: climate change.

Byron hires Dellarobia to help him to make sense of the strange apparition on her land and in the process of learning how to help him, she acquires a self-confidence she had been denied by her lack of education and by her poverty. It is a story steeped in biblical metaphor: the monarch butterflies transform the land as if "trees have turned to fire, a burning bush"; lambs are raised for slaughter, the Turnbows' principal business as farmers; and ultimately the onset of spring soaks the land in a flood of Old Testament proportions. Yet the forces set loose in this way will be nothing to those that will be sweep the world as it gets warmer and warmer, Kingsolver is telling us.

In general, Flight Behaviour is an impressive work. It is complex, elliptical and well-observed. Dellarobia and her kin come over as solid but believable individuals, outlined with respect and balance. Even Cub, her much put-upon simpleton of a husband, and his dreadful, manipulative mother Hester, are ultimately accorded sympathy.

Much is also made of the Turnbows' poverty, almost to the point of overkill. Two lengthy scenes are devoted to shopping visits to low-rent supermarkets in which the family's financial tribulations are outlined in unflinching detail. Later, Dellarobia is quizzed by a self-righteous eco-campaigner about her lifestyle, only to discover that her poverty makes her just about the lowest possible emitter of carbon in the United States. I don't have enough money to buy a computer that I might then leave on overnight and waste power, she snarls at her chagrined inquisitor. Only the last of these encounters works satisfactorily.

However, it is the issue of climate change that hangs, unspoken, over proceedings and it is left to Ovid Byron to give it resonance. Pestered by a hardened TV journalist to explain the monarchs' strange appearance in the Appalachians, he is outraged when she doubts that global warming is real and suggests that climate change deniers might be right. "What you are doing is unconscionable," he screams at her. "You are allowing the public to be duped by a bunch of liars." The diatribe becomes a viral hit on the internet. Thus Kingsolver makes her message clear. If only a few more scientists started screaming on TV and radio then we might have a chance to avoid the worst of the calamities that lie ahead.


Robin McKie

The GuardianTramp

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