Barbara Kingsolver writes masterful, sweeping, epic dramas that canvas big themes and an immersive sense of place while still connecting the reader to individual characters on an intimate level. Her latest novel Unsheltered (Faber & Faber Books 2018) is no exception.
The book is structured with two simultaneous timelines: the first is set in the utopian community of Vineland in 1871, and features Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher promoting the (then) very controversial ideas of Charles Darwin. His house – and his family – are literally falling down around him, and he finds solace in the blossoming friendship with his neighbour, the intrepid scientist Mary Treat. The second story is set in the same house, and it is still falling down around its occupants. The year is 2016 and Vineland is a very different place, but the history of 150 years earlier resonates still. Willa Knox is trying to keep hold of her fractured family in the aftermath of the tragic death of her daughter-in-law, and the infant son left behind, including the child’s father (her own grieving son); her rebellious daughter Tig; and her husband who is desperately trying to secure university tenure. The failing house with its rising damp and unstable beams, its ant infestation and its peeling wallpaper, its rocky foundations and its crumbling façade, offers only the most fragile shelter.
Both Thatcher and Willa – more than a century apart – experience many of the same obstacles, not only in their quest to find shelter and to keep hold of their families, but in locking horns with the authorities and disturbing the status quo. The spirit of Mary Treat – adventurous and indomitable – unites them through the years, as Willa uncovers the history of the area and of her place in it.
This novel covers so many broad themes: landscape, place and the natural environment; scientific endeavour and discovery; the many mutations and adaptations of family; the constant push and pull of parenting; climate change; politics; the emancipation of women; the resilience of the human spirit; the steadfastness of friendship based on mutual respect; the many forms of romantic love and desire; the ‘it takes a village’ mentality of raising a child. The historical sections of this novel are entirely authentic and believable; we are taken right back into that time, and then the author very cleverly transports us back and forth between then and now, in 2016, with Trump, technology, and the language and anxieties of a new generation.
The word ‘shelter’ or ‘unsheltered’ pops up often in the text, and each time it reiterates the suitability of this as the title. This is a book all about the shelter we seek, where we find it, how we strive to keep it, and who we choose to seek shelter with.
Kingsolver uses the rather clever device of ending each chapter with the title of the next: for example, chapter one ends with the words ‘We’re all beginners’, and chapter two is entitled ‘Beginners’. In this way, the chapters both past and present merge together, moving us seamlessly from the past to the present day, from two very different families in very different circumstances united by their life on the same block of land with the same structure sheltering them from the outside world.