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.