Barbara Kingsolver

Faber & Faber, £20

Review by Alison Rowat

AS the success of the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale shows, there is a fierce appetite in today’s America for strong female voices. Perhaps it is because the first serious female contender for the presidency grabbed for the crown and stumbled, or it could be that the man who won lends new urgency to the job of bringing about a kinder, more tolerant, politics.

Either way, Barbara Kingsolver’s marvellous Unsheltered is to be welcomed. As those who know the writer from The Poisonwood Bible, a novel that was to book clubs what Harry Potter was to the junior set, Kingsolver is in her element when placing women in situations where all the odds appear to be against them.

Unsheltered combines two stories, each taking place more than a century apart on the same plot of land. In 1871 in the town of Vineland, New Jersey, lives Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher, his wife, her sister, and her mother. Vineland in 2016 is home to Willa Knox, a laid off journalist who moved there from Virginia so that her political scientist husband could have a chance of tenure. Willa, with the help of her daughter, takes care of her disabled father-in-law, and a baby grandson.

The most obvious bond between Willa and Thatcher is, as the title suggests, the houses that are falling down around their ears, with no money to fix them. The basic unit of shelter is more burden than blessing, likely to betray them with each day that passes. For unsheltered read unsecured. “Your foundation is non-existent,” a funereal builder tells Willa. Thatcher, speaking six years after the end of the Civil War, echoes Abraham Lincoln in telling his wife that the house is “at odds with itself” and will “eventually pull itself apart down the middle”.

Both families have faced upheaval, with Willa reckoning that her family has “already used up its quota of misfortune”. How wrong she turns out to be. For this is 2016, the year when all the laws of political physics will be turned on their head with the appearance of a candidate referred to in the book as “The Bullhorn”.

Time and again, Willa refers to The Bullhorn as an aberration, something sure to crash and burn. “He said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him? Am I dreaming this?” Similarly, she is dismayed at a media that seems “a little too thrilled with the shock value. Like Orson Welles reporting on the alien invasion”.

Thatcher is living through interesting times also, only in his case the man of the hour is one of reason and science. Thatcher is an admirer of Charles Darwin, and is delighted and amazed to come across a fellow believer in his next door neighbour, Mary Treat, a biologist, who is in correspondence with the author of On the Origin of Species.

Thatcher’s belief in Darwin’s theories of evolution put him at odds with Charles Landis, one of several characters based on a real person. Landis, a property developer and the creator of Vineland, is at once a progressive and a conservative. While a pioneer of integrated education and votes for women, he believes the highest power in a science class should be God. “He says these difficult times in our shattered country call for a return to fundamentals,” Thatcher explains. It is made plain to Thatcher that it is Landis’s way or the highway. In another echo of modern times, Thatcher recalls a Boston demo against Darwin in which the crowd chanted, “Lock him up”.

Here, then, dwell our two main protagonists, Willa and Thatcher, with Kingsolver weaving in the views and fates of the other characters, often seamlessly but just occasionally not. It is often the fate of Tig, Willa’s daughter, home from a stay in Cuba, to be a sort of one-woman Greek chorus for millennial liberalism, while Willa and her husband perform the same job for 1960s idealism. By and large, Kingsolver keeps their interventions naturalistic and convincing, with only the odd speech coming across as forced.

It helps immeasurably that Kingsolver is graced with a wonderfully gentle sense of humour and is not afraid to regard her characters through beady eyes, as when left-wing Tig is bickering with her financier brother. “Willa wondered how many tuition dollars they’d invested in this conversation,” writes Kingsolver, “and whether she could get a refund; she wished they would all shut up and eat.”

Though equal attention is paid to the plights of Willa and Thatcher, the modern story is more captivating. Strange, since the 19th century tale is not without high drama, including a lecture equivalent of the Scopes Trial which put Darwinism in the dock. It is not that Thatcher is dull, more that Willa is so much more relatable, her needs more pressing.

Nor is it entirely clear how the times in which Willa and Thatcher lived are comparable. Landis is a patriarch, but a largely benevolent one, and one, moreover, of limited power. Can the same be said of Donald Trump? A better comparison seemed to be between Darwin and Trump as fellow disrupters, to use modern political parlance, with both at odds with accepted thinking. One is loath, however, to consider Darwin’s well considered and examined theories with Trump’s rag bag of populist rants.

Where Kingsolver triumphs is in leading her characters to some sort of shelter, even if that means diminishing their hopes longer term. If Willa and Thatcher learn anything it is that one should mend the roof when the sun shines, rather than trust that everything will be fine when the rains come. As Tig says of her baby nephew, a child born in Trumpian times, “He got born in the historical moment of no more free lunch … He’ll have to learn to be happy with what he’s got.” Amen to that.