Like Anne Tyler’s recent Clock Dance, Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel has a heroine named Willa. Presumably, both senior American novelists are paying tribute to their forebear Willa Cather, and the centenary of her masterpiece, My Ántonia. Perhaps they are even appointing her their intellectual grandmother, as each novel opens with a Willa having active grandmothering thrust upon her. Tyler’s heroine, in a trademark Tyler accident, is given the care of a child presumed to be her son’s; Kingsolver’s Willa, with equally typical politicised realism, takes on her baby grandson when her daughter-in-law dies in a suicide that is blamed in ruthless detail on the American healthcare system and millennial economic pressures on graduates.
Kingsolver’s novel is set in a Tyleresque house, too, albeit one in Vineland, New Jersey rather than Baltimore: an ancient, scruffy family pad with an ailing grandfather in the attic, hippyish grown children frolicking through the kitchen, and serious ongoing repair problems. However, she has no sooner established Willa’s family tragedy and the building’s subsidence issues than she whisks us back 150 years to a parallel Vineland and a new heroine, Mary Treat.
Both Vineland and Treat are historical entities: Vineland was a utopian colony with a demagogical leader; Treat a biologist and radical thinker who corresponded with Darwin. Kingsolver is also a biologist, and when she shows us Treat among her plants, one finger in the Venus flytrap to check its digestive powers, the synergy is evident in the warmth of the prose. Barely have we become involved with Mary and her tentative friendship with the radical teacher Thatcher Greenwood, though, than we are returned to Willa and her struggles in Trump’s America.
These time shifts become progressively exhausting because both places are so crowded with characters and dialogue. It’s hectic, detailed, expository dialogue, too: the 19th-century debate on evolution or the 21st‑century one about capital; graphic illustrations of the failures of Medicaid. Kingsolver has always been a bossy writer, ever prone to adding an adverb to a verb to ram home her meaning, and free with her use of one-dimensional characters. In earlier books, though, the solid colours and caricatures were used to heighten the drama: here, they are so often illustrations rather than story that it becomes tempting to read the two narratives separately, if only to keep on top of the names.
It’s also horribly easy to do so because the only real plot links between the stories are the house subsidence and journalist Willa’s pursuit of Mary Treat’s biography and the local history of Vineland. This places Willa very close to Kingsolver, who also quested through the archives of Vineland. Probably too close: there are many moments when we hear the wisecracking, knowing voice of the author sound through Willa. Thus Kingsolver describes a pair of swans, curling “their long necks in a co-ordinated motion like synchronised swimmers” and Willa chimes in, apparently out loud, with a comparison to supermodels: “Willowy and gorgeous. And they’d kill you for the chance of a good meal.” Wise Willa often tells us what is psychologically going on while, for example, her son Zeke and daughter Tig debate new capitalism and old socialism. Zeke, establishing a digital startup in the wake of his wife’s tragic death, begins: “We had this crazy Bluetooth conference in the car … ” He concludes, after a paragraph of digital speak: “The name of our firm is Good Money.” “Wow,” thought Willa. “Grief Compartmentalised.”
“As in throwing good money after bad,” adds Tig, who also usually has her opinions endorsed by the narrator and rewarded by the plot.
In alliance, Tig and Willa deliver much explicit advice about how to obtain Medicaid, use an eco-nappy, and get guardianship of a child: the sorts of practical processes that would leave Tyler’s Willa bewildered. They become progressively judgmental, especially about Zeke’s dead wife: in contrast, Tyler’s Willa is opened up through her grandmothering, as so many Tyler characters are, to a sense of risk and chaos, and to the piercing power of love.
Cather established the American historical novel as a spacious form. My Ántonia is famous for its vistas over prairies and over decades, and for its partial yet vivid views of monumental, ambiguous, unknowable characters. Unsheltered is researched as carefully as any Cather novel, but there is no space here: Kingsolver is so anxious to demonstrate and teach that neither characters nor story can breathe for themselves. She has already written a successful hybrid book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which mixed essays and recipes: another like that might have been a better vehicle for her researches into the story of Vineland and her vivid sympathy with Treat while also accommodating her wide knowledge of ecology and her passionate political sympathies.
• Kate Clanchy’s The Not-Dead and the Saved is published by Picador. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is published by Faber (£20). To order a copy for £15.49 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99