TOAST Magazine

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver | Book Club

BOOK CLUB

For this month’s Book Club the literary critic Alex Peake-Tomkinson reviews Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. 

Barbara Kingsolver trained as biologist before she became a novelist and she has repeatedly shown her desire to anatomise society in her fiction. In her bestselling novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998), she examined the impact of missionaries in the Belgian Congo and in her more recent novel, Flight Behaviour (2012), she took on climate change. In her latest novel Unsheltered, she turns her attentions to the recently disenfranchised middle class in contemporary North America.

Willa Knox is a woman under siege. Having strived for years, she newly finds herself a member of the precariat. The magazine she edited and the college at which her husband, Iano, taught both fold at the same time. The couple move into a wreck of a house she has inherited in Vineland, New Jersey, which they hope might be the answer to their prayers before realising it is so damaged as to be almost unliveable in. Their precarious lives are further complicated when both their adult children – one with a newborn baby – and her husband’s elderly and infirm father all move in with them. As Willa reflects, their household consists of “One underemployed breadwinner, five dependents.”

Researching her home’s history, Willa stumbles upon Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher and his neighbour the naturalist Mary Treat, one of whom may have lived in Willa’s home in the 1870s. Thatcher’s story, which alternates with Willa’s, forms the other strand of the narrative. Although both Thatcher and Willa are beleaguered on a number of fronts (not least financial) they both possess marriages of noticeable sweetness. Thatcher “felt married. A thing so unexpected.” whilst Willa reflects that “The shape of her husband in a doorway could still bump her heart.” One of the triumphs of Unsheltered is that Kingsolver manages to make happiness in a long relationship seem neither dull nor unlikely.

There is also a great deal of tenderness in her portrayal of Willa as a mother, a role she has been forced back into when her son’s motherless baby comes to live with her. Willa is at odds with her capable, rebellious daughter Tig – their cramped living conditions force her to confront this when the two share a bed. She realises “To spend a night like this, inches from her daughter’s skull and everything it held inside, was a tender agony Willa could have explained to no one but her mother.”

It seems a particularly bitter pill that Willa has recently lost the mother she loved so much but now must live with her racist father-in-law Nick instead. Nick is a keen supporter of Trump (here referred to as “Bullhorn”) and a fierce critic of Obamacare. After a Kafkaesque visit to the hospital when Nick has a medical crisis but doesn’t possess the correct paperwork to be treated, Willa pragmatically signs him up to Obamacare without his consent.

The most touching aspect of the book is Thatcher’s friendship with Mary Treat. The latter is a correspondent of Darwin’s and when Thatcher finds himself out of favour for teaching Darwin’s theories of evolution to his students, Mary lends her support. Thatcher is liberated by this ostracization, reasoning “He might sleep in a bed of cactus thorns or a tree under the stars, but he could choose the company he kept and it would not be this fearful, self-interested mob shut up in airless rooms.”

Although Thatcher loves his pretty wife Rose, she is disquietingly reminiscent of Rosamond Vincy, the vain and selfish young woman who makes such a bad marriage with Tertius Lydgate, the principled and radical doctor in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Thatcher worries that his friendship with Mary will make her the subject of gossip but she considers herself invisible since her husband abandoned her for another woman. Her friend sees it differently: “Thatcher thought Mary was not invisible, but as free as any woman could be.”

Willa and Thatcher are both embattled but Unsheltered expresses an implicit optimism about the future. Willa is intrigued by the resourcefulness of Tig and her boyfriend Jorge: “Millennials she thought she knew: the overmothered cyborgs helplessly sunk in virtual worlds. From what planet came this new, slightly feral tribe of fixers, makers, and barterers, she had no idea.”

Tig's self-reliance can be seen as one response to the erosion of the welfare state. In fact, each member of Willa's household embodies a different political position: Zeke's attempts at can-do capitalism stand in opposition to his sister Tig's post-capitalist independence, Nick's bigotry, Iano's resignation or Willa's frustration. Unsheltered has been hailed as the first literary novel of the Trump era and the fears surrounding his election are indeed a catalyst to the plot. Before Trump is elected, Willa reflects "It was pretty clear there would be no stopping the Bullhorn, or someone like him. Here was the earthquake, the fire, flood, and melting permafrost.” Kingsolver has no panacea to offer those who share Willa's anxieties but her commitment to a clear-eyed examination of the current predicament will be a comfort  to those seeking realism in art.

Images by Victoria Garcia. 

The TOAST Book Club exists in a purely digital space and we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below. All those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of Unsheltered plus a ticket to Barbara Kingsolver's talk on November 12th at the Royal Festival Hall. We have three prizes (of a book and ticket) to give away. Prize draw ends November 4th. 

The next book will be Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.

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