Flight Behaviour is a damn good read

Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

It can be a perilous thing for a fiction writer to have a strong social message as it risks a story that is heavy-handed and preachy. But for the first two thirds of US author Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Flight Behaviour (Faber, $39.99) it seems as if she has pulled it off, delivering her sermon on climate change within the framework of an absorbing narrative with a convincing lead character whose life she immerses the reader in completely.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a dirt poor and dissatisfied young mother in rural Tennessee. We meet her at the point when she’s about to risk what little she has by cheating on her wholesome but dull husband Cub. On her way to a love tryst, hiking up the mountain on the Turnbow family farm, a curious, almost biblical sight stops her in her tracks. A forest of fir trees is blazing and sparking with orange. At first Dellarobia fears fire but, with no smoke or smell of burning, she begins to believe this unearthly beauty – which she describes as looking like “the inside of joy, if a person could see that” - is a vision sent to save her from wrecking her life for a man she barely knows.

What Dellarobia is actually looking at is huge clusters of Monarch butterflies overwintering in trees that provide them with shelter and warmth. And while this is a beautiful sight, it is also a terrible one – for the Monarchs are meant to be in Mexico rather than the Appalachian mountains and their presence is a signal that something has gone wrong with the environment.

The arrival of the butterflies changes everything. Dellarobia becomes a minor celebrity in her depressed bible belt town, family loyalties shift, plans to log the forest on the Turnbow mountain are threatened and new people appear in her hitherto small, stifling life. Scientist Ovid Byron and his team of researchers set up camp in her barn while they study the butterfly phenomenon. And beautiful, clever Dellarobia finds herself increasingly attracted to both him and his work.

It's Dellarobia and Ovid’s longer conversations that are the weak points of this book, the places where the science overwhelms the story and Kingsolver begins to bang her climate change drum just that little too hard. This is a matter of only a few pages but it's clunky and lets down what is otherwise a carefully-crafted, thoughtful story.

A trained scientist, Kingsolver lives in southern Appalachia and has drawn on these parts of her background profoundly for this novel. It is clear she knows all her characters inside out, from the hardscrabble farmers to the passionate entomologist. The sheer drudgery of Dellarobia’s existance, her relationship with her tricky mother-in-law, her love for her children, her yearning for something different and the reasons she’s taken the wrong path in life in the first place, all are authentic.

There is a strain of ironic humour running through the novel too, in particular a great scene where Dellarobia meets an eco do-gooder and discovers her poverty makes her far greener than he could ever imagine being.

Kingsolver writes enviably brilliant, beautiful prose that is both accessible and finely-tuned. As a result Flight Behaviour is a damn good read. And while it may fall marginally short of perfection, its powerful images and central message have stayed with me. A moving, involving, immensely readable book – if its not on your summer holiday reading list then it should be!


Nicky Pellegrino,(right), an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on Sunday 9 December, 2012.
Her latest novel When In Rome is set in 1950's Italy and was published in September 2012.