Thursday 29 May 2014

Flight Behaviour

I bought 'Flight Behaviour' by Barbara Kingsolver as a birthday treat and saved it for my holiday. I reviewed 'The Lacuna' nearly three years ago and loved it so much, though I had not tackled anything else by her until this one, which was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction last year. This book tells the story of Dellarobia and the monarch butterflies that adorn the front cover. She is a young woman, married in haste very young and is repenting at her leisure. Except there is not much leisure in her existence where she and her husband Cub (nicknamed after his father, Bear) live in the shadow of her in-laws, both physically at the edge of their failing farm, and metaphorically in that their lives are controlled by the decisions of the domineering Hester. The monarch's migration has been disrupted by a landslide in Mexico (this really happened though the change in their migration is fictional) and they end up in the forest on the hill behind the Turnbows' farm. Their arrival brings not just curious sightseers but also a cohort of scientist who want to find out what has caused this aberration, and it is the arrival of Ovid Byron that really shakes up Dellarobia's life and forces her to reconsider the path she had been obliged to take. 

In Dellarobia we have a woman who seems to accept that her options in life are severely limited. She remaining stubbornly loyal to her marriage and Cub despite acknowledging that they have nothing in common and also in spite of intermittent romantic flirtations that never venture outside her imagination. However her growing fascination with the butterflies, and wanting to encourage her son Preson's growing interest in nature, rekindles her desire to do something more with her life and draws her into the world of the scientists. Breaking away from the very confining expectations of her community she  gets caught up in the scientists' struggle to understand what is going on before time runs out and the plummeting temperature threatens the butterflies with devastation. The environmental messages come thick and fast in this story but everything that I learned about migration and climate change was skilfully integrated into the narrative and it was never overwhelmed with scientific jargon. 

The most interesting relationship in the book is between Dellarobia and her mother-in-law Hester; forced together by their relationships with Cub, there is an unspoken resentment covered by politeness and reserve. They never really get to know each other until the arrival of the butterflies changes everything:

" 'If you were going, you were going, I figured. Taking those babies with you.'
'Preston and Cordie?' Dellarobia turned to stare. Could any of this be true? That Hester expected to lose them, all this time? The woman had practically pronounced the marriage vows herself, she and Bear, and thrown together that house before the ink was dry. Built, though not paid for. 'You built us a house,' she said.
'It's what we owed our son.'
'And you think I've had one foot out the door. All along.'
'Have you not?'
'No!' Dellarobia drew the vowel out into two syllables as in, No stupid. She made herself breathe slowly, feeling numb. It was an earthquake, an upheaval of buried surfaces in which nothing was added or taken away. Her family was still her family, an alliance of people at odds, surviving like any other by turning the everyday blind eye. But someone had seen the whole thing." (p.477)

But it's the big ideas that are played out that make it such an interesting read.
While the scientists scrabble around in their lab, nature finds the way:

"Salted across the dun floor of the woods she counted three, four, a dozen small bouquets. Once her eyes knew how to see them, they became abundant. She took the trowel from her bag and dug into the dank forest floor, which was wet and gravelly just under the top inch of matted leaves. While she chipped away at the inhospitable garden, the air stirred and in plain sight the experiment ran ahead of itself. Monarchs were already here, this source discovered. She saw two bright drifters coasting tentatively in the woods, and near Hester's boots, the duller orange of folded wings at rest on a flower cluster. Nectaring, that was the verb. King Billy nectaring on the harbinger." (p.479-80)

Science versus the media and the general public:

"Science as a process is never complete. It is not a foot race with a finish line. He warned her about this, as a standard point of contention. People will always be waiting at a particular finish line: journalists with their cameras, impatient crowds eager to call the race, astounded to see the scientists approach, pass the mark and keep running. It's a common misunderstanding, he said. They conclude there was no race. As long as we won't commit to knowing everything, the presumption is we know nothing." (p.484)

And just below this, science and god:

"And even while he warned her of these caveats, Dellarobia felt a settling down of her lifelong plague of impatience. He did not claim that God moves in mysterious ways. Instead he seemed to believe, as she did, though they never discussed it, that everything else is in motion while God does not move at all. God sits still, perfectly at rest, the silver dollar at the bottom of the well, the question." (p.484)

But Preston is the highlight of the story for me, because he reminded me of my own children's intense curiosity about the world and the joy of watching them make their own sense of things, and I identified with Dellarobia's urge to protect him from anything that might crush it. One lovely final scene between them:

"They watched the sun break over the stippled backs of the wooded hills that swam along the horizon. First it was a shapeless fire blazing through bare trees, quickly gaining the yolk of its sphere, and then they could not look at it directly.
'Today smells like the time when the lambs get born,' he said.
'It does. Like spring.' She closed her eyes and inhaled. 'What is that, dirt?'
They stood together drawing in the day through their noses. At length Preston said, 'I think it's worms. And baby grass.' " (p.511)

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