Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is one of the most involving novels I’ve read in a long while. Set in a poor sheep-farming community in Tennessee, it’s a vivid, funny and uncommonly well-rounded account of the challenges and dilemmas faced by the young housewife Dellarobia after her half-formed impulses to walk out on her unfulfilling marriage are unexpectedly derailed by the arrival of thousands of crimson butterflies in the trees of the mountain close to her home. The phenomenon is greeted as a miracle by the God-fearing locals but a much more sober and disquieting analysis is reached by a small team of out-of-town scientists whom Dellarobia extends her hospitality to: this unusual migration pattern is a symptom of accelerating climate change, and both the butterflies and the township itself face grave peril.
With its constant and sympathetic central character and strictly linear and contained throughline this is a much more conventionally structured read than either of Kingsolver’s most celebrated earlier books, the multiply-narrated missionary horror story The Poisonwood Bible and the enigmatic, continent and decade hopping The Lacuna, but I’d say it was a more satisfying work than either of them, playing directly to her strengths of establishing realistically subtle and complex characters and situations that never develop in obviously signposted directions. In particular, the author manages to effortlessly dodge the preachiness that’s a major risk when you choose to make manmade global warming the main theme of your book – while there’s plenty of convincing and well set out detail here of the evidence supporting the most pessimistic predictions (Kingsolver has a Master’s in ecology and evolution) there’s also been a lot of care taken in getting across how the poverty and lack of opportunity in this society tends to render such concerns largely irrelevant (there’s a lovely scene in which an environmental campaigner half-heartedly finds himself advising a woman who’s unlikely ever to be able to afford a computer or a holiday to “take fewer flights”). Which is not to say there’s not real passion about the state of the planet on display here, as witnessed by the explosive (and hilarious) confrontation between the fastidious and media-wary ecologist Dr Byron and a pushy TV reporter set on getting a pithy soundbite for an early evening news package.
Flight Behaviour ends up being just as much a well-observed and non-patronising look at the type of community that’s often reduced to a stereotype as it is a deft outline of some of the warnings the world really needs to start paying attention to right away, and that it also manages to be a warm and funny comedy of manners with some highly engaging people (even the little children come across as real, fully-rounded, characters) is even more impressive. Left me wanting more, and for a 600 page book and an attention span as short as mine that’s a true miracle.