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Thursday, 27 December 2018

Book review: Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver (2018)

This is my third book by this author and I really, really, really tried to get into it but at around the 18-percent mark I failed. It’s a slow starter, I completely understand that, but I didn’t really see the point and I certainly didn’t find here the poetry that I found in the two other Kingsolvers I have read.

This is a rigidly-circumscribed book that has at its core the idea of “home”. There are two narratives, one which is contemporary and one which is set in the final decades of the 19th century.

In the modern thread of the story we find Willa and her husband Iano, who live in a house in New Jersey in the kind of suburb that you find in Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant 2016 film ‘Paterson’, a film which explores similar ideas about the middle class and the meaning of life. It’s a once-genteel part of town but the house Willa and her family live in, which they had inherited, is built on non-existent foundations. A builder gives Willa the bad news but immediately afterward her son Zeke is forced to come and live with the family because his partner, and the mother of his son, has suicided. As well as Zeke, Willa and Iano there is the fiery Tig and Iano’s elderly father Nick living in the decrepit house. Willa is a freelance journalist and Iano is a lecturer at a university but he doesn’t have tenure, so both members of the intermediate generation belong to the precariat. Zeke has a debt of $110,000 from his years at Stanford and is busy setting up a tech company. Tig had been involved in Occupy Wall Street and has just returned from a stint in Cuba.

Have you got all that?

Now, the first thing to be aware of is that the conversations that take place around the dinner table in the New Jersey house are pretty lame. Tig provides a typical progressive doom-and-gloom narrative that has no roots in reality and Zeke thinks he knows how the world is made but he doesn’t. Iano and Willa try to keep the peace and Nick interjects with sage and gnomic observations. It’s a pointless exercise and you wonder if Kingsolver is in any way more well-educated than the people she populates her story with. Probably not.

I was forcibly reminded reading this book of another book I read this year, ‘All My Puny Sorrows’, by Canadian author Miriam Toews, which ends up with three generations of a single family living together in a large suburban house (review on 12 October). Toews is similarly “liberal” (in the North American sense of the word; in Australia we say “progressive”) and has a sense of the importance of mutual support in preserving social cohesion. It’s a timely tonic that can help combat the corrosive effects of neoliberalism, which has caused so many problems in developed economies since the 1980s.

In Kingsolver’s secondary narrative you have Thatcher and Rose living in a house in the same part of town as Willa and Iano in, but in one of the decades that came after Lincoln. In this muddily-imagined world you have the relieving spark offered by Mrs Treat, who keeps spiders in glass terrariums in her parlour. I waited to see the link between the two primary narratives but apart from the spiders living under glass and Mrs Treat feeding them with her fingers, nothing emerged in time to keep me sticking with the story.

What’s there to be excited about in this book? I found the tiresome cogitations of Zeke and Tig to fail the most basic test of good sense. How either of them are supposed to be offering anything founded in facts was completely beyond me. Do people this misguided really represent modern America? The sad straits of their parents might add some pathos to the story but how all this is supposed to tie in with people who lived five generations earlier entirely escaped me. This is a dull novel by a talented writer who needs to do more reading.

When are Americans going to realise that it’s not capitalism that is at fault, but rather their own political settlement. It’s not some vaguely defined “system” that is broken but rather the American way of running things. Other developed countries do very well, thank you very much. But Americans will never learn anything that does not originate within their own borders. This is their fate and possibly it will lead to their downfall.

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