Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered, examines in two parallel narratives what happens to people when their known securities, the fabric of their existence, their shelter, is threatened. In the case of Willa Knox, the irretrievable collapse of the house she’s recently moved to is just one of the unexpected calamities she has to face as a fifty odd year old woman who’s done all the right things in life. Thatcher Greenwood, the protagonist of the parallel 19th century story, is overwhelmed by the same crumbling house a century and a half before. He’s also facing hostility from his community because of his progressive ideas on science and specifically Darwin. In a clever weave of their two narratives, Barbara Kingsolver examines the idea of shelter-as an essential human requirement, but also as something that can hold us back, that can prevent us going outside, beyond the shelter to see the light.
The novel opens with Willa Knox, recently moved to her aunt’s house in South Jersey, being told by a surveyor that their collapsing house is beyond repair because of shortcuts taken in the construction, namely a lack of foundations. This is really bad news for Willa’s family : her husband, Iano, lost his tenured lectureship, at a university in Virginia and this house they’ve inherited is their only asset. They’ve moved there for its convenience to Iago’s new post- a one year contract at a Philadelphia university-and Willa, who’s recently gone freelance as a journalist, should be able to work from her office at home. Except she has barely any time to work at all, as they’re caring for Nick, Iano’s father, who is seriously ill and on oxygen at home, and, soon into the novel, for their baby grandson, Dusty, while his Dad, their son Zeke, is in Boston trying to make a living. As these problems and demands pile up on her, ceilings collapse in the house and rooms become unusable.Their financial situation becomes more and more dire, until the family become eligible for Medicare and at times there is little in the fridge to eat. Willa struggles to cope, becoming beset by anxiety and panic attacks, all the while aghast at how this could be happening to her and family, well educated and hard working as she and Iano have been all their lives, always doing the right thing.
The 19th century narrative has Thatcher Greenwood recently married and moving back to the house in Vineland, South Jersey, which had been built by his late father-in-law. He is aware that the house is in urgent need of repair and that it was shoddily built in the first place, but Thatcher is a science teacher and does not have the means to carry out repairs, so again his story is set against a background of a house collapsing around his ears, and his inability to provide shelter for his family. He has a post, for one year only, at the local school where he tries to teach science through investigation and observation, methods which the director, Cutler, finds suspect and even more so when he realises Thatcher is a follower of Darwin. He sets Thatcher up in a public debate of Darwinian v Creationist ideas, with the intention of humiliating him publicly and specifically in front of the school’s benefactor, Landis. Landis master minded and built the Vineland community including the school and is revered by the community for his philanthropy.In fact, he is a powerful wheeler dealer who controls all business and local politics and will brook no criticism.Thatcher endures the challenges he faces thanks to his growing friendship with his next door neighbour, Mary Treat. She is a biologist with similar progressive ideas to his own and corresponds with Darwin and other scientists of the day. (In the Acknowledgements we learn that there was a real Mary Treat, a 19th century female biologist whose life and contribution has been sadly neglected.)
The two narratives progress in alternate chapters, linked together by the last phrase of each chapter becoming the title of the next. There are similarities in the lives of both protagonists: obviously the crumbling house and their financial precariousness. But they are also both on the cusp of an era of new thinking, of new ideas. Just as Darwinism fundamentally shakes the prevalent 19th century world view, so we see in Willa’s story a way of life, capitalism, which is bankrupt. Not only do we see the effects of ruthless economic policies on the working lives of every generation of her family, we see in the abandoned farmsteads of the South Jersey landscape the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and the indifference of governments to climate change. The new way of thinking, a new approach, is embodied in the character of Tig, Willa’s daughter, who has long rejected her parents’ striving to do the right thing and instead travelled, worked and lived in alternative communities and ends up, with her boyfriend Jorge, being a compassionate and non judgemental carer for both her grandfather and her nephew, baby Dusty.
Now, if it sounds like there’s an awful lot of ideas in this book of only 464 pages, that’s because there are. I felt at times that the historical section suffered slightly through this in that the female characters, apart from Mary Treat, are not developed as much as they could be. But in my view this is more than made up for by the brilliant characterisation in the contemporary section, particularly the wonderfully sympathetic character of Willa, with whom many middle aged women readers will identify. There is her obvious struggle with the demands of three generations of her family, but Kingsolver also adds more subtle touches, such as her quiet grief for her mother, recently passed, an anchor and friend all her life, and Willa’s love for wordplay and linguistic puns which add humour and levity to the narrative. Willa’s frustration and rage at her reactionary father-in-law is convincingly developed and her changing relationships with her children told with sympathy and nuance.
And the ideas in the book are both far reaching and relevant for our time: it’s not just a question of the old order breaking down and the arrival of new ideas, but the way information is controlled and our readiness to listen and accept that we need to do something new. So in 19th century Vineland it is one man, Landis, whose newspaper and worldview dominates. The town cravenly see him as a philanthropist and benefactor and are unable to hear any criticism of his hegemony and sharp business practices. So if he and henchman Cutler see progressive scientific ideas as threatening, that becomes the view of the majority of people. In the contemporary story we hear the racist views of Nick, who refuses to engage with Willa’s alternative explanation for the diminishing power of white working class men in the workplace and, almost an aside towards the end of the book, the reactionary politician Bullhorn gaining a primary in New Hampshire, and suggesting to us through association the ushering in of the era of fake news.
So as well as a compelling narrative about the fragility of the structures we rely on and shelter in, the novel is also a plea for examining and questioning that shelter. The change in her circumstances leads Willa to face the way in which her generation has contributed to the present state of affairs, whereby, as Tig says, we’re overdrawn at the bank, at the level of our species. It’s asking us to stand in the clear light of day…unsheltered, like Mary Treat, so that we can see how we have bankrupted our planet and what we have to do to change. As so often before, Barbara Kingsolver combines her considerable gifts as a storyteller with her observational scientific eye and knowledge to create a novel which pulls us along with its characters while urging us to see what needs fixing.