Flight Behaviour

Issue section: 
(383)

Dellarobia is a frustrated young mother and housewife. Married at 17 after accidently becoming pregnant, ten years on she is living on a run down farm in the Appalachian Mountains, spending her days at home with two little children.

It is a yearning for something more that leads her to seek escape in an affair.

The book opens with her walking away from her house and life to meet her lover in a remote hunting lodge. Yet her life is about to be transformed in a very different way. As she enters the woods she is abruptly stopped by the sight of millions of bright orange butterflies, their colour so dazzling and intense she thinks she is trapped in a forest fire.

This chance discovery sets off a whole different chain of events. News spreads of this beautiful phenomenon and while the locals have their own opinions about the butterflies, the scientists that come to investigate have a different explanation: climate change. It is unprecedented for monarch butterflies to attempt to spend winter far from the heat of the South and the places where they have wintered for centuries.

What follows is a story not only about the natural world and climate change but also about people and human relationships. The reader is drawn into the lives of Dellarobia and her family, her relationships with her children, husband and others in the months following the butterflies' arrival. New people, ideas and possibilities are now glimpsed - from the climate campaigners who set up camp, to those who have fled from the effects of climate change, and crucially for Dellarobia the scientists who arrive to study the butterflies. But with new possibilities come new choices and therefore new decisions to be made.

Kingsolver brilliantly portrays her characters as complex beings. Her scenes of domestic life are so vivid and powerful precisely because they are so accurate. Some of the most important conversations take place while out shopping or eating a burger in their truck - the only time the adults are alone without the children. They highlight the poverty of Dellarobia's family but also the pressure such money worries exact on relationships. Anyone who has experienced the depressing drudgery of Christmas shopping with little money will empathise with Dellarobia and her husband going round a department store looking at tat - and not being able to afford what is deemed necessary for their children to have "real Christmas".

Kingsolver manages to combine debate about the effects of global warming with a story that focuses on the minutiae of family life and as such brings out all its contradictions. By entwining something that seems so out of human control with personal lives and domesticity it becomes about something else too. Is it possible to change our lives and decisions and to have different relationships? It is a novel about freedom and the lack of it. Ultimately I took a positive message - it is possible to make change on all levels.

Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver, Faber, £7.99 pounds (GB)

Available at Bookmarks, the Socialist bookshop.