Barbara Kingsolver cemented her already considerable literary reputation when she won the 2010 Orange Prize—“my first and only experience of the paparazzi,” she recalls delightedly—for her last novel, The Lacuna. She describes the writing of The Lacuna—an epic novel which spanned decades and countries—as “a marathon that took years and years to research and write. And I like to follow a marathon with a sprint.”
For her new novel, Flight Behaviour, Kingsolver had “a visceral inclination to write something that was very contained. It’s not that it’s necessarily easier, in the way that a short story is not easier to write than a novel, and poem is not easier to write than a short story. It’s just different and it uses different muscles.”
But at 440 pages, Flight Behaviour won’t be a sprint for readers and nor should it be. It’s a powerfully immersive read, set on a failing Appalachian sheep farm in rural Tennessee where young mother Dellarobia Turnbow is growing increasingly unhappy with her lot. Married to the kind but ineffectual Cub since high school—a shotgun marriage at 17 precipitated by an unplanned pregnancy—and at the mercy of her overbearing mother-in-law, Dellarobia is on the verge of beginning an affair to relieve the monotony of the daily grind. But, walking up the mountain path behind the farm on the way to meet her lover, she is stopped in her tracks by an extraordinary sight—“a lake of fire”.
Unusually for Kingsolver, whose novels tend to begin life as a series of questions, the inspiration for Flight Behaviour was rather different: “I woke up with a vision in my head and it was what Dellarobia saw; a forested Appalachian valley with the trees trembling and glowing with what looked like flame. Unlike Dellarobia I knew what it was, because I’m a scientist. “Usually I approach things more rationally—‘what if?’—but in this case it was a presentiment. And those gifts don’t come very often. When you get one, you definitely need to write the novel.”
What Dellarobia has seen turns out to be an extraordinary, unprecedented natural phenomenon which will draw scientists and TV film crews to the farm and reveal the tensions between the locals and their urban visitors. It’s not a “lake of fire” but an enormous colony of Monarch butterflies who would usually settle in Mexico but have, for some reason, migrated much further north to a valley in Appalachia. For some locals this is evidence of a miracle, but the visiting scientists think differently.
It transpires that the Monarch butterflies have descended on the Turnbow land as a result of climate change, a fact that some of Kingsolver’s characters, in common with the wider population, have difficulty accepting. “The whole question of denial versus belief, science versus faith, that dichotomy is so interesting to me. Denial is an important part of human life, but in this case it’s become elevated to a religious, cultural and political position that’s fascinating to me. The cultural conversation about climate change in [the US] is astounding when you step back and look at it.
“It’s also very sad because where I live, the people who are already most likely to be suffering financial harm from climate change are rural, conservative farmers; and the people least likely to understand, or even believe in climate change, are rural conservative farmers. What’s up with that? Where does that come from? What is keeping it in place? I thought that was interesting, so I wanted to unravel that for the reader and take a really good look at how denial operates at so many levels.”
Raised in Kentucky and describing herself as “a hillbilly” by birth, Kingsolver now lives on a farm in Virginia, 20 miles from the Tennessee border, and says that the “easiest part of the novel” was her knowledge of “the setting and the people and their livelihood and their religion and their ways of seeing the world—I know all that like the back of my hand . . . I have an enormous attachment to the culture and traditions and people of this place, but I’m not sentimental about it. I know what the challenges are too.”
Struggling with the recession, Cub’s farmer father Bear wants to sign a logging contract to sell the trees where the butterflies have settled. Dr Ovid Byron is the scientist who arrives to study the butterflies—and it’s through his scientific passions that Dellarobia glimpses the possibility of another life.
Kingsolver herself trained as a biologist before turning to science journalism, and she’s proud that “even though I invented the premise, everything else about the novel is real—including the science”. She sent a draft of Flight Behaviour to four scientists: “I wanted them to vet it, I wanted them to help me make sure that [the novel] was absolutely authentic in terms of the way it represents both the scientists and their science.”
A real strength of the novel is Kingsolver’s ability to make that aspect not only understandable, but completely compelling. “To get scientific information into the vernacular is difficult,” she admits, “but then to layer it into a novel in a way that feels natural, so that the reader never feels educated . . . that’s the greatest challenge of all.”
The novel also takes a swipe at the reductive “sound bite” culture of modern media. The TV crew who descend on the Turnbow farm are only interested in presenting the story in a palatable way that will not provoke any disturbing thoughts in the minds of their viewers. It’s not an attitude that Kingsolver has much time for: “This novel asks the reader to look climate change in the face. That is a harrowing thing for any of us to do. Anyone who is really following the evidence, and following the reports of climate scientists telling us about the damage we have already done . . . they will tell you it makes your hair stand on end.”
“But I didn’t want to write a novel that people would throw across the room when they were halfway done. I wanted to make the subject so compelling that people would stay with it. I wanted to write a story about how people cope with a challenge this great . . . when I began, I didn’t know if it was possible. I hope that I did.”
Flight Behaviour is out now, published by Faber.