“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.” – Dellarobia Turnbow, Flight Behaviour
I finished this book about six months ago and have been trying to write a review about it ever since. But the right words continue to elude me. Countless drafts later and I still do not feel like I can do this book justice.
I think it’s because Barbara Kingsolver is, in a word, brilliant. Every word she writes carries so much weight – no sentence is wasted. Her prose is tightly controlled, but at the same time it possesses a rhythmic quality, like poetry.
As an aspiring writer, I find her work incredibly intimidating. Reviewing it feels odd, like an apprentice commenting on a master’s technique. Maybe I should call this post a letter of admiration instead.
Her latest novel, Flight Behaviour, is fearlessly honest. Kingsolver tackles no small topic: climate change. Never one to shy away from controversial subject matter (see: The Poisonwood Bible), she leaves little room for the reader to hide from hard truths in Flight Behaviour.
Set in small town rural America (Appalachia to be exact), Flight Behaviour follows the life of Dellarobia Turnbow, a farmer’s wife and mother of two. Dellarobia leads a simple existence by some comparisons. Too poor to afford a computer or a smartphone, she rarely uses the internet and is in a way disconnected from the wider world. Her life revolves around her two children, five-year-old Preston and three-year-old Cordelia, her sweet yet uninspiring husband, Cub, and her overbearing mother-in-law, Hester.
Dellarobia’s days are consumed by plastic toys, baby food and sneaking out onto the porch to chain smoke cigarettes. On Sunday the family goes to church. Occasionally her best friend Dovey will come over and they will do each other’s hair and dream about the lives they could have led.
Dellarobia is plagued by the feeling that she is not living up to her true potential. Exhausted and depressed, she is ready for change, and is about to run away from her mundane farm life – and her two beloved children – to have an affair with a young lover. In the first chapter she drops her children off at her mother-in-law’s, puts on a pair of nice boots and trudges up the hills behind her property to begin her new life. But then she sees something that makes her think twice.
“A small shift between cloud and sun altered daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame… The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze.”
Butterflies. Thousands of them, if not millions. Orange monarch butterflies were occupying every branch of every tree, as far as the eye could see. Through Dellarobia’s eyes we adjust to the view, unable to understand why – or how – these winged creatures came to be here, behind her property. That sight scorched Dellarobia’s mind and sent her hurrying back down the mountain, back to her kids, back to her family, with a renewed sense of purpose.
“Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.”
And so the story begins. Overwhelmed by their beauty, Dellarobia at first tries to keep the butterflies to herself. But before long news of the unusual colony has attracted the attention of scientists the world over. As Dellarobia learns more about the phenomenon, she realises the butterflies may not be the miracle she’d hoped for.
Dr Ovid Byron, a leading butterfly researcher, sets up a science lab on Dellarobia’s property and begins to study the monarchs. A tall, gentle, highly intelligent man of African-American descent, he is unlike any man Dellarobia has ever known – she is transfixed by his presence in her life. He provides her with a full-time job in the lab, the first she’s ever had.
As she learns about the butterflies and gains some financial independence, the storyline is propelled towards the uncertainty looming on the horizon – not just for Dellarobia, but for the fragile monarchs. Having never migrated this far north, they are in a precarious situation. Will they survive the winter? Or will the entire species be wiped out? Will Dellarobia pull her life together and do the best by her kids? Or will she sink into the apathy that plagues so many people today?
Many climate change narratives swing from one natural disaster to the next, swallowing cities whole and wiping populations off the earth. Flight Behaviour is far more subtle – and therefore far more representative of climate change itself. There’s a dangerous belief circulating that one day climate change is going to hit us like a tonne of bricks and then we will all wake up to the reality. But, as Flight Behaviour beautifully illustrates, climate change is happening right now, at a pace that is too slow for people to take significant notice yet fast enough that it will have drastic consequences.
This novel opened my eyes to how the ‘little things’ aren’t so little when they are done by everyone, on a grand scale. The lunch wrappers I throw in the bin every day. The cheap clothes that fall apart after a few spins in the washing machine. The casual consumerism that we all participate in to feel accepted by society. Flight Behaviour is a stark reminder that the earth wasn’t created solely for our comfort. If we want to stay long on this planet we must relearn how to give nature the caution it demands and respect it requires.
“Mistakes wreck your life. But they make what you have. It’s kind of all one. You know what Hester told me when we were working the sheep one time? She said it’s no good to complain about your flock, because it’s the put-together of all your past choices.”
“Will you explain to me why people encourage delusional behaviour in children, and medicate it in adults?”
“The last generation’s worst fears became the next one’s B-grade entertainment.”