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Drowning Rose (2011) is the seventh of Marika Cobbold’s novels, though I confess I had never heard of her until I picked this one up. Apparently her first novel, Guppies for Tea (1993), attracted a lot of favourable attention, and she’s been quietly writing away ever since. At first I thought this was chick-lit that had got a bit older, but on reflection, I don’t think that’s really fair.

The main narrator of the story is Eliza, now in her early forties. She works as a ceramics restorer for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and though she loves her job, repairing ceramics doesn’t help her repair her life. She has never recovered from the guilt she feels for not saving her friend Rose, who drowned in an accident in their final year at school. This has blighted her emotional life; witness her failed marriage. Then out of the blue, she is contacted by Rose’s father, who is also her godfather. He has not spoken to her since Rose’s death, as he too blames her for it. Now he wants her to come and visit him in Sweden where he lives. What does he want with her? There is also a secondary narrator, Sandra, who likes to be called Cassandra; her story is about the time when she was at school with Eliza and Rose.

This is not a story where very much happens; small domestic and workplace incidents, and Eliza’s visits to her aging godfather, make up most of the content. This is not in itself a problem; the emphasis is on emotions and feelings, particularly the grief and guilt Eliza still feels about Rose’s death. Is this taking proper responsibility for something she has done, or is it deliberately – if unconsciously – self-limiting what she might achieve in her life? (This makes an interesting contrast to the non-fiction book The Consolation of Joe Cinque, by Helen Garner, which I reviewed recently, in which in real life, Anu Singh killed her boyfriend, but didn’t accept responsibility for her actions.) The contrast between the disintegration of Eliza’s life and the work she does repairing ceramics is rather obvious, but the ceramics themselves are interesting (though not as interesting as those in A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book), and the Scandinavian fairy stories resonate with events in the story. Why involve Sweden? It is where Cobbold was born.

But I’m less happy with the second narrative. Cassandra’s story shows her as a selfish outsider, desperate to join Eliza and Rose’s group of friends – the princesses, as she calls them. Though this isn’t a structural problem, I was sorry that Cobbold made Cassandra a scholarship girl ashamed of her lower-class roots. There are other forms of envy than class envy. And I don’t think the two stories really fit together as a whole. There is some suspense involved in their coming together in the present, though it’s not that hard to guess the outcome. Cassandra’s story deliberately contrasts Eliza and Rose as young women when life is ‘all just out there, just sitting there, waiting for you to go and get it’– ‘a wide golden road to a glittering future’ – with Rose dead and Eliza as she is now: ‘a life of ‘if onlys’ and ‘what ifs’. But I find the two versions of her hard to reconcile.

For me, this book is rescued by the black humour that characterises Eliza’s voice. Cobbold says that ‘My way of dealing with most things, although obviously there are exceptions, is to make a joke’, and this is what she does with Eliza. ‘I can do perverse thinking,’ she says. And she also does flippant: ‘The call [from her godfather] shouldn’t have upset you like this.’ ‘I know. But try telling that to the call.’ Her step sister, Ruth, ‘was watching me the way a laid-back bird might watch a worm making its painstaking way to the surface of the soil. Now she said, ‘I haven’t upset you have I?’ I gave her a newscaster’s smile. ‘Of course you haven’t.’ Next thing I knew she was crying. I stared at her. ‘All right, you have. I am upset. There, you can stop crying now.’ Ruth looked up at me with tear-blurred eyes. ‘What are you talking about?’ There’s a lot of this sort of stuff – cross purpose jokes, non-sequiturs and slightly off key observations. It’s probably what I miss in Cassandra’s version of Eliza.

I think this book belongs in the category of ‘pleasant’ rather than ‘challenging’. This is perhaps why I initially thought of it as chick-lit – which addresses issues of modern womanhood humorously and light-heartedly – though in this case for forty-somethings, not twenty-somethings. But Eliza’s grief and guilt, some of her thoughts about old age, and her acerbic voice perhaps lift it beyond the merely light-hearted.

You can read more about Marika Cobbold here.

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I recently reviewed the latest Charles Cumming spy story: A Foreign Country (2012). Cumming has been highly praised for his work, but while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t think the writer warranted the comparisons he was getting with legends of the genre like John le Carré. But I thought I’d give him another try; this one was published in 2011. The result? My opinion remains the same. He’s good, but not that good.

If I was being very picky – which of course I never am – I’d say this was not really a spy story at all. Rather, it is a mystery story, where an innocent individual finds himself (in this case) inadvertently involved in some sort of conspiracy. It just so happens that the events that make up this conspiracy take place in the secret world of espionage, with the familiar themes of double dealing and betrayal.

Dr Sam Gaddis is a lecturer in Russian History at University College London. At the launch of his book, The Tsars, comparing Peter the Great with ‘the current Russian president Sergei Platov’ (clearly Vladimir Putin) he meets a young woman, Holly Levette, who claims that her recently dead mother has left an archive of material about the KGB. She has been referred to him by a journalist friend of Sam’s, Charlotte Berg, who is also working on a story involving spying. She has been contacted by someone who claims to have explosive revelations about a sixth British spy associated with those recruited by the pre-world war II Soviet espionage agency, the NKVD, during the young men’s years at Cambridge – the Trinity Five (Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross). Charlotte asks Sam to collaborate on a book about it. Her sudden death from a heart attack and his urgent need for money – a tax bill and school fees for his daughter who lives in Spain with Sam’s ex-wife – convince him to go it alone. But what on earth had she discovered? And is there anything new in Holly’s archive?

As you might expect, Sam’s path is not smooth, and he soon has various enemies – though as in most ‘quest’ stories, he finds help as well as hindrance along the way. The story is told largely through his eyes, but other characters also carry the plot at various times, so the reader sometimes knows more than he does, for example when he discards hypotheses the reader knows to be true. This helps with the pace and tension, though it is a slow- building plot, rather than the ‘bang bang kiss kiss’ sort. I am always interested in how a plot about a civilian with lots of powerful enemies can be resolved; it’s not like he can arrest someone. This one finds a quite satisfying mechanism, though I am left with the feeling that the plot, though complex, isn’t really subtle. It comes together, but you can see the magician behind the screen pulling the strings. This may be unfair; I know I’m comparing the way the crucial elements of the plot resolve with ‘the last clever knot’ that Smiley has to unpick in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – and I had to read that twice before I understood it. And of course it all looks simple once you know. The twists and turns are enjoyable, and that’s probably all that matters.

Cumming writes well about people. He is good at quick character sketches, and makes the cast of minor characters come alive. He presents Sam Gaddis as an essentially a good man who believes in ‘human decency’, caught up in events well outside his control – though he manages to deal with it all reasonably well. He has some of the talents needed for his quest; he protests that he is ‘an archives man’, not an investigative journalist, but he is good at following a trail from one piece of evidence to the next. (In a nice touch, his enemies manage to use his ‘archive’ work to trick him temporarily.) He also falls to bits quite convincingly at times, making him more human than some other fictional academic sleuths – Robert Langdon comes to mind. I am less convinced, however, by Holly Levette, and the other woman in the book, Tanya Acocella. At one point Gaddis compiles a list of reasons why Holly, now his girlfriend, might be a ‘plant’, and it’s all too believable. Her reasons for being with him aren’t ever explored. Nor, in my opinion, is Tanya’s motivation adequately explained. This is a pity, because it’s her role that makes the plot a bit mechanistic; she does what is needed by the story, not what comes from being a character that Cumming has fully developed. But hey, it’s a well written thriller with a clever plot. Be grateful for having found a good one. And I do like the end.

You can read more about Charles Cumming here. His next book, A Colder War, is as promised a sequel to A Foreign Country, and will be published in 2014.

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Readers of this blog will know that I’ve recently reviewed two books that dealt in very different ways with civil rights and racism in the southern states of America – Home by Marilynne Robinson, and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. So I was fascinated to find that this film is also about these issues.

The film is loosely based on the true story of a man who worked as a butler at the White House for around thirty years, serving Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. (Ford and Carter don’t really get a look in.) In the film he is called Cecil Gaines and given an even more traumatic childhood than the real butler. His parents are black share croppers on a cotton plantation, the owner of which rapes his mother and kills his father. Cecil is taken into service – he becomes a ‘house nigger’ – and ends up serving in a hotel in Washington, from where he is recruited to the White House. From reading books about English country houses I always thought the butler was the head of the servant establishment, but apparently in America butler is another word for footman. And for almost all Gaines’s time at the White House, no black footman got equal pay with white domestics, let alone promotion to running the place. However though at first he is invisible, over time he becomes valued as a person as well as a butler. He also gets to hear lots of political discussion.

The counterpoint to this is the story of Gaines’s son, who becomes involved in the Civil Rights movement. Through Cecil’s eyes we see Eisenhower dithering about whether to send federal troops to support the desegregation of the Little Rock High School, Kennedy’s indecision about supporting the Freedom Riders who were taking on the Jim Crow laws of the Southern states, Johnson’s support for the Civil Rights Act, Reagan’s  continuing attack on the Black Panthers and his refusal to condemn apartheid in South Africa. Through his son’s eyes we see black people beaten up for trying to integrate a luncheon bar, a Freedom Ride bus destroyed by the Klu Klux Klan and protesters jailed for asserting their civil rights. Father and son see these issues very differently; the national drama is played out in the conflict between them.

I’ve often found that the film or TV mini-series of a book is disappointing because it imposes a common denominator vision that stifles the picture of people and events you build up as a reader. Though The Butler was never a book, I found that the images added tremendously to my understanding of the civil rights issues raised in the two books mentioned above. Cutting from black servants setting up for a State dinner in the White House to a diner where young black people are being beaten up for being there, and back again, is something you can only do on film. The visual jolt of seeing a burning cross wielded by the Klu Klux Klan was something I don’t think I could have got from reading about it a book.  Some critics of the film thought this counterpointing was a bit overdone, but I didn’t find it so. Perhaps such images are commonplace in America, but for me they still carry great weight. And it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that such events are relatively recent – it all happened in my lifetime.

The film takes a little while to get into its stride, and I sometimes found it difficult to catch what was being said because of the strong southern accents – though I’m told that Forest Whitaker, who plays Gaines, always has a tendency to mumble. But once the conflict over civil rights is set up, the film gains in pace and power. The presentation of the various presidents is on the whole well done, though I could be picky and say that Nixon isn’t coarse enough, or that Regan is too bland – notwithstanding how bland he really was. While there are only minor attempts to make them look like the real person, there are enough similarities of appearance and manner to make their presentation credible. There is a strong cast; Oprah Winfrey in particular surprises as Raines’s wife Gloria, who has her own battles with loneliness and alcohol – she is a much better actress than I expected. I noticed that in 2011, she invited all remaining freedom riders to appear on her program as a tribute to their courage. The film is dedicated to all those who worked to secure civil rights for African Americans.

The film is certainly worth seeing, especially if like me, you don’t have a strong background in American history. You can find more about it here – including details of the well-known cast. Too much information and too many stars?  You can read reviews both sympathetic and critical here.

PS The proper title of the film is Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013), this mouthful being necessitated by the fact that there is already a much earlier – now lost – film called The Butler. Only in America. 

PPS There was also a freedom ride in Australia in 1964-5 to highlight the poor living conditions of Indigenous Australians and the racial discrimination they suffered. I don’t think they’ve made a film about it though.

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You might think true crime is an unusual genre for book club reading, but I’m glad my book club chose Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004). Not only does it recount a shocking story that should be better known, it is also a great vehicle for Helen Garner’s individual, almost confessional approach to writing. Perhaps creative non-fiction is a better description of the work than ‘true crime’.

In 1999, personally and professionally at a loose end, Garner takes up a suggestion that she write about the trial, then in progress, of Anu Singh, a law student at the Australian National University, who is accused of the murder of her boyfriend, Joe Cinque. What is beyond doubt is that Singh drugged Cinque with Rohypnol, and then injected him with a fatal dose of heroin. What is much less clear was whether she was mentally ill at the time, and could claim diminished responsibility. Also unclear is the role her friend Madhavi Rao, also accused of murder, played in Joe’s death. After initial hesitation, Garner finds she becomes almost obsessive about trying to understand the behaviour of all of those involved. Her deepest sympathy is for Joe’s parents, and she writes the book in order to make sure he is not forgotten; that can be his only consolation.

This case raises many issues – legal, medical, social and moral.  What constitutes mental illness? Does all mental illness diminish responsibility for action, or only sometimes, and under some circumstances? What are people’s responsibilities for preventing a crime? Lots of people knew about Anu’s intention to kill Joe and her alleged intention of killing herself. Why did no one warn Joe? Why did no one call an ambulance earlier when he might have been saved? How was heroin so easy to obtain in Canberra, and why did bright, educated young people think it was a good idea to take it? What recompense can there be for parents who have lost their child, since there can be no recompense for the victim himself? Does the legal system really deliver justice? Is there a gap between legal responsibility and moral responsibility, and if so, does this matter? And what is the purpose of jailing people?

Amidst this welter of concerns, Garner does not even try to pick an impartial path. How could she? She does not respond objectively to the players in the drama; it’s not possible, for both practical and emotional reasons to do so. She seeks knowledge of Joe from family and friends; there is no other way of knowing him. Anu Singh does not agree to speak to Garner, so her portrait is drawn largely from what Garner learns from her family, from seeing her in court, and from reading the court documents. These include the one that opens the book, in which an Anu – evasive or hysterical? – gives a false name and address to the ambulance service while Joe lies dying. Garner makes an immediate emotional judgement about her: ‘She was the figure of what a woman most fears in herself – the damaged infant, vain, frantic, destructive, out of control.’ This possibly says as much about Garner as it does about Singh, but it sets the tone for her response to Singh for the rest of the book. Garner doesn’t try to hide the fact that she isn’t a blank slate. She comes to the story in rage and frustration with her own circumstances. She questions her own right to tell the story – and not to go on once she has begun. She gives her own perspective on everything.

I was both horrified by the events Garner describes, and completely caught up in her musings about right and wrong and meaning in them. This suggests the power of her writing. She has a tendency to generalise what may be something only she feels – as in the above quote. But mostly her reflections ask the questions anyone might draw from these events. Of Anu’s actions: ‘What is ‘simple wickedness’? Does such a thing exist? Was there ever such a thing, or did it die with the arrival of psychiatry?’ ‘Did words like remorse, repentance, redemption have any value for her?’ Of Rao’s relationship with Singh: ‘Where does one person’s influence end, and another’s responsibility begin?’ And if duty of care and duty to act are not the same thing, what of ‘the ugly divide between morals and the law’? Questions like these are for the most part unanswerable, but all the more valuable for being asked. Expect to feel outraged – but also baffled.

You can read more about Helen Garner and her work here, and an interview with her about the book here. If you are interested in what happened next, you can read an interview with Singh after her release from jail here, a hostile article about her here, and an interview with Joe’s parents here. There are plans for a film, which you can read about here. Hopefully Joe Cinque will not be forgotten.

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Readers of this blog might remember that not long ago I wrote a review of The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz, which investigates the increasing economic inequality of American society. Battlers and Billionaires (2013) covers some of the same ground for Australia. Leigh argues that while things are not as bad here as in America, the level of inequality is nevertheless of major concern.

After an introduction which summarises his argument, Leigh gives a brief historical survey of inequality. He argues that despite a belief in Australia that Jack was as good as his master, high levels of inequality prevailed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was followed by what he calls ‘the great compression’, whereby equality increased significantly until the 1970s. Thereafter, inequality rose again in what he calls ‘the great divergence’, so that wealth is rising more quickly among the already rich than the rest of the population, while the wealth of the very richest is growing even faster. This divergence has been accompanied by a decrease in social mobility. Leigh identifies changes in technology and globalisation, de-unionisation and tax cuts which benefit the rich more than the rest as the factors contributing to growing inequality. He suggests that a strong economy with high productivity, an improved education system, a strong union movement, carefully targeted social welfare and progressive taxation are all needed to reverse the current trend. Rather more controversially, he argues that we need to do something about ‘the role that family structure plays in perpetuating advantage and disadvantage across generations’. And he wants to keep egalitarianism ‘at the heart of our national story’.

Leigh differs somewhat from Stiglitz in his assessment of the importance of inequality. For Stiglitz, it is unquestionably a bad thing. Leigh agrees that inequality has adverse effects on social mobility, and may skew political outcomes in favour of the most affluent. He also agrees with Stiglitz that much of the new wealth comes from rent seeking – such as cashing in on high overseas mineral prices – rather than hard work and innovation.  But he argues that inequality is not always a bad thing; unequal countries grow more quickly than equal ones, even though the trickle down effect is very slow. He sees growth as necessary to lessen inequality; you need a bigger pie if people are going to get a bigger slice. So much for the limits to growth.

These arguments are underpinned by a range of statistical and other evidence. Leigh deals with this with a light touch; there is a lot more information and explanation, and details of sources, in the extensive end notes. Leigh is a former Professor of Economics at the Australian National University, and I get the impression that he would have been a very good teacher. He keeps things clear and simple, illustrating his case with interesting anecdotes and analogies – for example, using war time examples and comparing different football codes. This is a much easier book to read than Stiglitz’s.

What I prefer about Stiglitz’s argument, however, is the way his analysis links inequality to the free market economy, which he presents as a construct whose nature has been profoundly affected by political action, or inaction – usually in the interests of the rich. Leigh’s book is not really about politics at all. This is in some ways surprising, since he is now a Labor member of the Australian Parliament, and shadow deputy Treasurer. What he doesn’t say is that ‘the great divergence’ began just about the time that a Labor Government took steps to open the Australian economy to the forces of globalisation, reducing tariffs, floating the dollar and privatising some government assets. This in turn decimated manufacturing industry, consequently weakening the union movement. Leigh might well argue – though he doesn’t here – that the Labor government introduced a superannuation system, and provided a better safety net for those who lost out in the process of globalisation than did conservative governments of Regan in the US and Thatcher in the UK. As a result, the level of inequality in Australia is less than in those countries. He merely notes that the welfare system has a much greater equalising force than the tax system. All the same, it seems at least in retrospect that more could have been done to limit the burgeoning wealth of the very rich, for example by more fairly sharing the profits of the minerals boom. Labor recognised the need to intervene at the bottom end of the market economy in the 1990s, but not at the top end, which was left unconstrained. By 2010, the share of top 1% had grown to 11% of the wealth in Australia, and the share of the rest of the country had shrunk. I’m not an economist, so how would I know, but this looks more like wealth being sucked up than trickling down.

All the same, this is an important book, and worth reading if you value egalitarianism.

You can read more about the politician Andrew Leigh here. If you are interested in his academic work, try here.

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This book won the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction, but rarely has that award resulted in so much disagreement about the merits of the recipient. A.N. Wilson said he was ‘awestruck with admiration for the quality of its writing, its narrative pace and its imaginative depth’, whereas a reviewer in The New York Times thought it had ‘the head of a young adult novel, the body of the “Iliad” and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland’.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad – otherwise known as The Song of Ilian, another name for Troy. The story is narrated by Patroclus, who becomes the beloved companion of Achilles and accompanies him to the war in Troy. The Iliad starts during the last years of the Trojan War. But Patroclus and Achilles don’t even reach Troy until over half way through this book. The first part is taken up with Patroclus’s own story: his childhood, his meeting with Achilles, their growing friendship, their education by the centaur Chiron and the attempt by Achilles’s mother, the sea nymph Thetis, to keep Achilles from the war with Troy by disguising him as a woman. Miller has elaborated on existing legend; she hasn’t actually made stuff up. But she has put the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles at the centre of the story. Its precise nature is never explained in the Iliad; here is clear that they become lovers. Indeed Miller refers to the book as a love story.

The question of foreknowledge operates at two levels in the book. On one hand, the characters have some knowledge of the future by means of prophecy, and information given by the gods. The world Patroclus describes is one where the actions of gods are an accepted part of life, as is the need to propitiate them. Only Thetis – an immortal, if not actually a god – actually plays much part in the story, though Apollo also appears at a crucial point. But the gods and their whims are a constant presence. ‘There is no law that gods must be fair’, Chiron tells Achilles. Achilles is told that he will be the best fighter of his generation, and later that while Hector lives, Achilles cannot die. Achilles and Patroclus know that ‘the best of the Myrmidons’ – the followers who have accompanied Achilles to Troy – will die before Achilles does. Such riddles add tension to the story, and I found it easy to accept Patroclus’s world view. But how can human love stand against the will of the gods?

The second issue of foreknowledge is that of readers, most of whom will have at least some familiarity with the events of the Trojan War. (The best known story of the war – that of the wooden horse and the defeat of the Trojans – doesn’t come into either the Iliad, or this story.) Does this knowledge interfere with the tension of the book? I didn’t find it did; indeed knowing what was to happen only made the tension greater. The story actually extends beyond what happens in the Iliad, and Miller has taken a few liberties with the ending. But it works well enough.

So what is there to cause all the controversy? Miller writes well, in a tone appropriate to her subject, so it can’t be that. There are a few places where her prose slips up – you can see a couple of them here. The story flows, and is easy to read. I guess it’s a question of whether or not you think she has sufficiently humanised her mythic characters. Through Patroclus, she tries to come to terms with the fact that Achilles is being trained, and training himself, to be an instrument of war, a killing machine. But making it a love story has made this hard to do. Achilles accepts that honour in battle is the highest cause – greased, of course, with the desire for plunder. ‘What is more heroic than to fight for the honour of the most beautiful woman in the world, against the mightiest city of the east?’ asks Odysseus. To remain within the spirit of Homer’s epic, Patroclus has to accept this too, and even in the face of all the killing, he offers unconditional love. He presents himself as somewhat passive – a natural follower. What is there interesting enough in him to inspire the sort of love that Achilles feels for him? I find their relationship a bit too bland – though not to the extent of comparing it with a Barbara Cartland romance!

Madeline Miller is a trained classicist who was teaching Greek and Latin to American high school students while writing this book. She certainly clarifies a story I’ve always found a bit confusing, and probably awakens an interest in classics like the Iliad. Some of the story as she tells it has real power. But even though it fleshes out aspects of the legend that aren’t clear, it doesn’t make an imaginative leap beyond it. A strength or a weakness? I’m still not sure.

You can read more about Madeline Miller and her work here

PS. I always thought that Achilles was invulnerable everywhere else but his heel, which had been gripped by Thetis when she dipped him into the river Styx to try and make him immortal – hence the phrase ‘Achilles heel’. But apparently this is a later accretion to the legend and not part of the Iliad, or this book.

PPS. If you like this book, you might also have a look at Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine (1956), set in 5th century Greece, in which there is another close male relationship – though I didn’t recognise it as sexual when I read it fifty years ago.  Miller is often compared to Renault.

 

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It’s a rare pleasure to write about a book I like as much as this one. The challenge is to convey what I think is so good about it. Is it the writing? Or what it’s about? It’s both. Kingsolver addresses a difficult problem with rare humanity.

Dellarobia Turnbow lives on a small sheep farm in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee with her husband Cub and two young children, and in much closer proximity to her in-laws than she might wish. Seeking escape from a life she finds dreary and inhibiting, she sets out one morning to commit adultery. But on the way, she comes across a life-changing phenomenon: a mass of orange monarch butterflies clustering in the trees in a gully above her house. At first it seems like a miracle, a thing of surpassing beauty; only later does she learn that the butterflies are there because of the destruction of their usual winter roosting place, and that their presence signals a dire alteration in the climate. But global warming is a foreign language in Feathertown, deep in the American Bible belt, where ‘weather is the Lord’s business’. How will Dellarobia and her family deal with the complications the butterflies bring into their lives?

Kingsolver has chosen a brilliant way of writing about climate change. She simply shows it in action. She never lectures; rather she allows her characters to see and understand, to attribute it all to God, or simply to find it all too hard. And along the way, related stories are being told. There is the entomologist who despairs of making moral judgements about the science, but finds himself doing so, and the Pastor who preaches human responsibility for stewardship of God’s creation. And then there’s the butterflies, so much in the wrong place, so much at the mercy of the weather, but still a thrilling presence in the book.

There are other stories woven in and out of the climate one, principally that of Dellarobia and her husband Cub– their marriage, their relations with Cub’s parents, the work on their farm, their parenting. All these undergo changes because of the butterflies, but also because of the pattern of their lives before this time. Dellarobia finds to her surprise that her mother in law, Hester, also has a story to tell. Kingsolver writes in a warm, human way; her mastery of dialogue is brilliant. All her characters are afforded the dignity of being taken seriously, and shown as fully rounded; there is no one without some faults, but they also have redeeming features. She never mocks their lives or their beliefs. Dellarobia struggles to explain these to outsiders, and is herself frustrated by much of her world. But she resents people who sneer at them – as northern liberals are wont to do. Reading about the depressed local town, where most of the shops, except for the $2 outlet, are shut, reminded me of two other books I’ve reviewed recently – Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, by Joe Bageant and The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz. Flight Behaviour gives a no less graphic picture of poverty than either of these, but Kingsolver does it with more empathy. In a nice touch, an environmental activist wants Dellarobia to sign a pledge to reduce her carbon footprint, but she is too poor to engage in any of the sort of consumption he wants her to give up. One of them is to fly less.

The narrative flows so smoothly it appears effortless, but the book’s title gives a hint about how it is actually all underpinned by the metaphor of flight, as well as the reality of flight that is part of the butterflies’ migration.  Dellarobia is in flight when she comes across the butterflies, which are of course flying around – though they are also clustered in the trees. Her life seems to be ‘flying from pillar to post’. But ‘Whatever incentive she might have for flying away, there it was, family, her own full measure, surrounded by a cheap wire fence built in one afternoon a long time ago’. She has ‘fantasies of flight when there was no flight. Nothing, really, but walking away on your own two feet’. It’s nothing so obvious as one story mirroring the other; it’s rather a series of gentle reminders that the lives of people and butterflies are connected.

Kingsolver’s story is fiction, but there is an element of fact – beyond the terrible fact of climate change. The mountain in Mexico where the butterflies winter was destroyed by a landslide in 2010.  But they didn’t move to Tennessee, returning still each winter to Mexico. It is also a fact that they are increasingly threatened; a report in September 2013 says that the already low North American numbers appear to be falling even further. The butterflies can be found in other parts of the world, including Australia, where the species is known as the Wanderer, but not in such numbers as in North America.

You can read more about Barbara Kingsolver here. I’ve also really liked the other two of her books that I’ve read, and you can read my review of Prodigal Summer here, and The Lacuna, which won the Orange Prize in 2010, here. Flight Behaviour was published in 2012.

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