Demon Copperhead

Barbara Kingsolver

Faber & Faber, £20



If the title wasn’t clue enough, the opening page of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel makes no attempt to hide its debt to Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. It starts, as does arguably Dickens’ best-loved work, with the narrator’s arrival in the world: “First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it.” Like young Copperfield, Demon emerges with a caul around his face, an augur, it is said, of ill fate.

His entrance was dramatic. Several months after his unknown father’s death, it took place in a trailer, where his teenage addict mum had passed out. Shortly after telling readers about this near calamitous event, Demon mentions their neighbours, the Peggots. Within a few sentences, it’s clear that Kingsolver’s state-of-the-backwoods novel is not just a nod to Dickens, but as close an overlay of present fiction onto past as it’s possible to be.

Kingsolver’s intentions with this magisterial work are vaultingly ambitious; not for her a dull rehash of a Victorian classic. She takes the original story as a springboard to examine a society so ailing, the word bleak is a cheerful way to describe is. Although she does not have Dickens’ imagination, style or irrepressible humour, this is her homage to the nation’s overlooked, forgotten, and despised, and it is powerful.

Set in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Demon Copperhead – so named for the lethal snakes abundant in the area – is a latterday portrait of the abject poverty and helplessness of children born into the sort of dismal family situation that Dickens wanted to highlight. “Kids like me,” says Demon, “with our teen moms putting whiskey on our gums to shut us up, Coke in the baby bottle, we’re the pity of the world.”

’Twas ever thus, you might say, and you would be right. In Dickens’ case, he was drawing upon personal experience. Kingsolver cannot match that, but the passion and verve with which Demon relates his tale reveals a crusading spirit the Victorian maestro surely would have admired.

At the heart of Demon Copperhead is the opiod crisis that has claimed tens of thousands of American lives. Oxy, as it’s called, is the drug to which Demon’s mother finally succumbs, when he is only 10. For her, it’s the only way out of a terrible second marriage, to a brute of a man who loathes her child. Her death takes with her an unborn baby, another tip of the hat to Dickens’ plot.

This was the 1990s, before the dangers of over-the-counter opiates were recognised. “The first to fall in any war are forgotten,” Demon reflects. “No love gets lost over one person’s reckless mistake. Only after it’s a mountain of bodies bagged do we think to raise a flag and call the mistake by a different name, because one downfall times a thousand has got to mean something.”

Even before his mother’s death, Demon has been packed off to a foster-home that makes Dotheboys Hall look like Gleneagles. There he makes friends with as sad a bunch of boys found this side of a Colson Whitehead novel. Wisely, Kingsolver makes her narrator a live-wire, whose sparky observations – albeit precociously mature for his age – go some way to alleviating what would otherwise be unremitting gloom.

Nothing in Demon’s life works as it should. Social services are either apathetic, over-worked, or the personnel constantly shifting. A ward of the state after his mother’s death, he is abjectly neglected by those charged with his care. At school, his filthy clothing renders him a pariah. One set of foster parents take him in only for the extra cash, and make him sleep in the utility room, amid the washing machines and laundry. To save cash, they barely feed him.

The owners of this woeful home are Mr and Mrs McCobb, pale shadows of the Micawbers. Despite their literary progenitors, there is nothing amiable about them. Nor does Kingsolver’s prose sing like Dickens’s as she turns the famous dictum into a workaday motto: “if you spend one penny less than your earn every month, you’ll be happy. But spend a penny more than your earn, and you’re done for.”

Kingsolver’s storytelling talent has made her one of America’s most popular writers, and The Poisonwood Bible can be regarded as a modern classic. Although the settings of her books vary, concern with society’s downtrodden, and the plight of the environment, run beneath her plots.

Demon Copperhead reminds me of the fifth series of David Simon’s brilliant TV drama, The Wire, where feature writers on the Baltimore Sun are tasked with disclosing the “Dickensian” underbelly of the city. It was as if deploying that over-used adjective was a way of understanding and not flinching at the conditions in which the city’s homeless scraped an existence, a means by which to make it somehow more palatable. With any luck, the newspaper calculated, there’d also be a Pulitzer prize in it.

The world has always had its “Dickensian” underbelly, whatever the era. Is ours any worse than others? Probably not, grim though conditions are for countless millions. Kingsolver’s aim is to awaken awareness of misery on the doorsteps of her readers, for whom hillbilly addiction and destitution are a disgrace rather than a source of national shame. Yet for all its verve, and Kingsolver’s righteous indignation, Demon Copperfield falls far short as a retelling of Dickens’s novel. Shackled by its literary progenitor, it is never able fully to shrug off the cloak of an extraordinary writer with whom unfavourable comparisons will be drawn.

There are memorable moments and characters – notably Betsey’s disabled brother Dick – but at every turn you are looking for the originals on whom they are based. Good though her writing is, Kingsolver’s creations inevitably come up short.