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Book DetailsISBN: 9780571347018
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Book Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver - Reviewed by CloggieA (12 Oct 2018)
5 stars Unsheltered is the ninth novel by best-selling, prize-winning American novelist, essayist, and poet, Barbara Kingsolver. Now in her fifties, Willa Knox never expected to be living in a run-down house in Vinelands, New Jersey, still the hub of a family that includes her two adult children, her new grandson, her debilitated, demanding father-in-law and an ageing dog.
Virtually unemployed, Willa is writing some freelance articles; her university professor husband Iano has a low-paid teaching job; her recently-widowed son Deke is juggling single fatherhood with setting up a personal financial advice company; her daughter Tig has abandoned college for protest action; her father-in-law Nick needs urgent medical care; and due to a lack of foundations, the house she inherited is literally starting to fall apart. Any sort of windfall, though not expected, would be helpful.
Some hundred and forty years earlier, Thatcher Greenwood has moved from Boston to teach science at Vinelands High School. Newly married to Rose, he has taken on the responsibility of both his late father-in-law’s family and house. His bright young sister-in-law, Polly is a bonus, whereas Rose’s mother, Aurelia falls into quite a different category. The house is not as sound as Aurelia believes, and his teaching position is a source of great frustration, as the school’s principal undermines his every attempt to infuse his students with current scientific knowledge.
The timelines alternate between chapters with the events of the 1870s told from Thatcher’s perspective, while Willa narrates the story set in 2015/6. Kingsolver uses a clever device to bridge the chapter: the final words of one chapter form the heading of the next. Between the narratives, parallels and echoes abound, and not just the residency at 744 East Plum Street. And with them, Kingsolver deftly demonstrates that many of the challenges we think we’re facing for the first time are by no means unique or new phenomena.
Kingsolver is highly skilled at creating believable characters: she writes about ordinary people facing everyday challenges, and yet, the reader can’t help but be enthralled. These are people who face hardships yet still worry about the greater good, about their country and the world. Their dialogue is credible, their relationships, realistic, and while there is naturally some friction between certain characters, their interactions (between couples, friends, siblings, parents/children, in-laws) are often entertaining.
Kingsolver’s depiction of these pre-Trump-era characters who have made good decisions, doing the right thing and working hard all their lives, and still ending up effectively on the poverty line, is absolutely spot-on. Her analysis of the mindset of those who support Trump (who remains unnamed herein) is astute and insightful. “…we’re overdrawn at the bank, at the level of our species, but we don’t want to hear it. So if it’s not this exact prophet of self-indulgence we’re looking to for reassurance, it will be some other liar who’s good at distracting us from the truth. Because of the times we’re in.”
Kingsolver gives Tig the voice of caution, making her intelligent, perceptive and articulate. If some readers feel this has a preachy tone to it, well, perhaps that’s because nothing else has worked and the situation is truly becoming dire. But it’s not all doom and gloom: there are also plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the conversations; and if those nations that consider themselves highly developed could take a leaf out of the book of a country that has had no choice but to curb their consumerism/materialism, then Cuba apparently has much to teach us all.
As always, Kingsolver’s descriptive prose is exquisite, and her love of nature is apparent throughout, as is her concern for the state of the nation and of the world. Again, she gives the reader an interesting, thought-provoking and eminently enjoyable read.
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