Mercifully, Kingsolver doesn’t succumb to the “Oh dearism” of a lot of baby boomers. She’s evidently furious about Trump, the injustices of the market and climate change, but her anger derives from a kind of hope. She has a searing moral clarity about what we need to do — swap material gratifications for spiritual ones — and fast.
This works as a novel because her writing brims with humour, the stakes are always high, the dilemmas chewy and the characters so fully realised that you feel as if you’ve been given a seat at the kitchen table and asked to solve their crises with them. Kingsolver emerges as a sort of Steinbeck of the precariat, and she may have produced the first great political novel of the Trump era. As Thatcher says: “Change comes only to the offspring, as time and adversity mould them. The luckiest will inherit the gift of survival.”
Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel may be set partly in 1870s New Jersey, but its concerns are decidedly contemporary. The storyline revolves around the writer Willa Knox, who inherits the house that belonged to the former science teacher Thatcher Greenwood, a man of principle who outraged the supposedly utopian community, Vineland, by preaching the virtues of Darwinism. There are hints of AS Byatt’s Possession here in the way in which the dual narratives inform one another, and, although there are occasional longueurs, Kingsolver’s concern with how intolerance can poison both a community and individuals alike feels chillingly relevant in the age of Trump.
Despite echoes of Kingsolver’s previous novels – the historical fiction of The Lacuna, the older female perspective of Prodigal Summer, the environmental themes of Flight Behaviour – Unsheltered is unlike its predecessors. Debate is given precedence over detail, and the obvious purpose of the story stifles the prose. The subject is still too raw; the rhetoric of the debates too brash for subtlety. This is a novel that doesn’t show, it tells, and that encourages lazy reading. Perhaps the exception is the ending, which leaves both Willa and Thatcher facing an uncertain future, unencumbered by past and possessions, free to decide what happens next.
With a couple of exceptions, Kingsolver manages to make her characters simultaneously believable individuals and embodiments of a generation or political position. But as the novel nears its cautiously optimistic ending, this technique begins to look like its own kind of delusion. It’s one thing to multiply Thatcher’s happy ending across an entire generation of scientists and intellectuals (we know, after all, that Darwin’s theories will prevail). It’s another to suggest that Tig’s values can save all those who adopt them.
In a living room in Vineland, New Jersey, in the 1870s, a botanist and entomologist named Mary Treat studied the activities of carnivorous plants and reported her findings to her colleague, Charles Darwin... perhaps, here, we find the motivation for this deeply searching, curious and passionate novel, in which Treat appears as the neighbour of one of its fictional protagonists... Two narratives, set 150 years apart, seem, at first, disparate except for their setting... Kingsolver ties these two lives together... In the tower-like webs of spiders, Kingsolver has us recognise the precariousness of any shelter, metaphorical or not: our homes, bodies, jobs, theories, beliefs, relationships... This is a novel about truth — prioritising progress over comfort and safety — and, also, about survival. It is far-reaching, ambitious and successful in its ambitions; it is a lesson in natural selection. History is shaped, Kingsolver seems to say, by what people, theories, buildings and legacies survive, and, here, she plays her part in the endurance of Treat’s legacy.
The present-day parts of Unsheltered are unashamedly socially engaged. They are also a triumph. Arguing over current issues, from college loans to Medicare, Willa and her family are fully realised creations, fearful, bewildered, frequently furious and often very funny. Willa’s relationship with laidback Iano is particularly well drawn: it is seldom that a happy marriage is so convincingly and touchingly portrayed in fiction. With the notable exception of Iano’s father, Nick, a Trump-supporting ranter, Kingsolver shows great tenderness towards her characters and her respect for their conflicting points of view ensures that every row deepens our emotional connection with them... The historical sections are less successful. Succumbing to an uncharacteristic Victorian stuffiness, Kingsolver never quite asserts herself over her extensive research... The message is bleak, but in her warm, humane portrait of a family under siege Kingsolver finds this consolation: that however perilous the present, however frightening the future, there is shelter in 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.
Over the decades, Kingsolver’s fascination with the natural world, the seasons of sowing, reaping and letting the land lie fallow, with forests and all that they contain, has fed many of her novels, essays and poems, from Prodigal Summer to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Unsheltered draws on the same rich stream. Kingsolver likes a big canvas, room for her characters to grow and change, her luxurious prose and flashes of humour lightening her forceful political arguments... The wisdom Unsheltered offers is wry, hard-wrested and timeless, good balm when even the roof over your head seems shaky.
Kingsolver’s sympathetically and affectionately realised characters — all residents of Vineland, New Jersey — are never secondary to her ideas...If I had a quibble with this typically substantial, satisfying novel, it would be with dreadlocked millennial Tig, whose piety I found seriously annoying.
Thatcher’s sections offer long, nitty-gritty explanations of Victorian scientific debate and this can be hard going. Aspects of Willa also feel slightly problematic: we are told that she has always been highly anxious, yet her voice feels oddly calm given the huge crises she faces. However, Kingsolver’s power lies in her ability to expound big ideas without losing sight of life’s pulsing minutiae: ants boiling “darkly from small volcanoes”; Willa crushing morphine in a ritual “as sombre and elaborate as a tea ceremony”. This precise and resonant perspective lifts Unsheltered into rich territory; the dull bits are (almost) forgiven.
She powerfully evokes the eeriness of living through times of social turmoil, but her true concerns are articulated by Greenwood’s neighbour, Mary Treat: “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.” Yet the gullibility of ordinary people seems etched harshly when mirrored across both timelines. The church-going traditionalists who turn against Greenwood appear a nostril-flaring herd of conformists. Iano’s father is a Trump-cheering deplorable, deaf to all reason. They look ungainly beside Kingsolver’s otherwise striking and impressive presentation of family life... Despite such pragmatism in grasping for solutions, Kingsolver renders contemporary America as a panorama of such bleakness that the prospect of a loved-up, free-cycling sanctuary doesn’t quite wash. As a work of socially engaged fiction, Unsheltered makes a decent case for escapism.
As the two protagonists confront their delusions, clarify their thinking and muster their courage, they emerge as decent and slightly irritating. Thatcher's initial admiration of his shallow wife grates, as does Willa's adoration of her optimistic, ineffectual husband. Willa also favours her bullying son over Tig. Kingsolver has written about the dark side of motherhood before, particularly in her novel Flight Behaviour. In Unsheltered, Willa can't or won't connect with Tig. "Could a mother and child just have bad chemistry?" she wonders.
Flawed as she is, it's impossible not to empathise with Willa: "Taking all the right turns had led her family to the wrong place." And flawed as Unsheltered is, it's impossible not to engage with it. Though it's rooted in America, its themes have universal resonance and it's a hugely satisfying read.
...Unsheltered can feel overstuffed, capturing the present moment while also putting it into historical perspective. Ultimately, however, it stands up as a distinctly uncosy snapshot of everyday middle-class life, vibrant with domestic nitty-gritty.
The first novel from the Orange Prize-winning novelist since 2012 is set in Vineland, New Jersey. In 2016, Willa Knox is grappling with a falling-down house, severe lack of funds and two grown-up children who have returned home-and her son is the sole parent of a newborn. Interwoven with her story is that of Thatcher Greenwood, Vineland resident in 1871. A science teacher, his devotion to the work of Charles Darwin makes him a pariah in the town. Through the challenges facing both characters, Kingsolver explores what it is to stand firm when everything around you is falling apart.