Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
What happens when the walls around someone collapse – in this case, both literally and metaphorically? One take is that when you’re left without shelter under the open sky, you may have lost your security but have gained a clearer view on life instead. This is the premise for Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, a novel about houses with absent foundations, shaky walls and leaking roofs, and the people in them whose lives are falling apart just as their houses are. As the foundations of crumble, Kingsolver takes on social justice and (the absence of) American health care, capitalism and cults, environmental catastrophies, and even debates on the very nature of the world itself.
I won’t blame anyone for assuming that one might need more than just one novel to tackle all that, and in fact Unsheltered tells the tale of two eras in one run-down town. In the present, Willa Knox’s life is not the established career, settled living situation and comfortable finances that she had imagined heading into her sixties. Instead, she has relocated from Virginia to Vineland, a once-utopian, now more shambles town in Jersey, with her academic husband Iano and black sheep cum anarchist and environmental activist daughter Tig in tow. The magazine she worked for is no more, the house she has inherited from her aunt is facing demolition and swallowing the family’s money, and her bigot of a father-in-law is strapped to oxygen, churning out Greek insults. As if this was not enough of a struggle, her high-flying son Zeke and his newborn baby are thrown into the desperate mix when his partner Helene commits suicide. Anxiety running high and money low, Willa sets on a quest for salvation in the form of potential historical significance of her foundation-less house.
A century and a bit earlier, the teacher Thatcher Greenwood finds himself on the same street, with his life taking equally unexpected turns in an equally ramshackle inheritance house. He’s an outsider at home, shared with his wife’s mother and younger sister who have fallen from societal grace after the death of the father. But he’s even more of a misfit at the high school he teaches at, where scientific progress – Darwinism in particular – is shunned and religion rules, and even simple outdoor exploration won’t get a stamp of approval from the near-totalitarian founder of Vineland and his minions. Facing domestic and political exclusion, Thatcher finds a kindred soul next door in Mary Treat – a real-life figure whose contribution to science is much overlooked. Mary classifies flora, observes fauna – rather harrowingly, she lets a Venus flytrap nibble on her finger in the name of science –, and has regular correspondence with Darwin and Asa Gray. Equally outside the general canon of small town life, the two are united in their pursuit of scientific truth and their horror at the blindness of the Vineland masses to their circumstances.
Unsheltered is certainly not light on content, but Kingsolver brings everything together with amazing flair: 19th century municipal politics, today’s global development, personal anxieties, marital fallouts and scientific and philosophical debates somehow turn into a pager-turner of a novel, seamlessly skipping from one century to another. At the same time, Kingsolver does not skimp on character development at the expense of her beloved Big Themes. This is particularly the case with Tig – who “could dispute God on the scheduling of Judgement Day, or whatever the pagan equivalent might be,” who goes from a seemingly untouchable, feisty alternative-everything university drop-out to the one carrying everything through with the most compassion and skill; in the family’s new topsy-turvy fortunes, it is not academic degrees but Tig’s line-cook skills and mechanical know-how picked up on her mysterious travels in Cuba that come in handy. As much as it is social critique, Unsheltered is also a coming-of-age story, for all generations and eras alike.
All this is executed with wit and dialogue acrobatics that cannot keep the reader from smiling, and prevent the novel from succumbing to the gloominess that its subject matter would justify – if this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist was blamed for being dark as a reflection of our times, Unsheltered shows that desperate themes need not make desperate reading. Sibling rivalry and Bible-versus-Darwin debates get an equally sharp treatment coming out of the mouths of Kingsolver’s characters:
Tig rolled her eyes. “Humans have outgrown the carrying capacity of the planet. The responsible thing would be to shrink our bottom line.”
“Hey, gee, we tried that! For five centuries before the Industrial Revolution. It was called the Dark Ages.”
Unsheltered exposes the reader to difficult questions and fates that they wish could not be theirs but know that they may well be; it’s a thought-provoker, possible angst-inducer, and a historical document, but in the most delightful way possible. I, for one, am left completely unsheltered from its charms.
Anna is a student linguist and journalist.
Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered (Faber, 2018) ISBN 9780571346981, hardback, 464 pages.
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