Book Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Book - Unsheltered by Barbara KingsolverUnsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is an uncomfortable read at times. It is a book which prises apart the building blocks of modern life – financial security, capitalism, family life – all based around the metaphor of a house that is falling down (both in the present and the past). It is exactly what you’d expect of Barbara Kingsolver, but it is also surprising and ambitious in scope, told through the voices of two characters living in Vineland, with over a century between them.   

The story follows Willa Knox (in 2016) and Thatcher Greenwood (in 1870). They are both new to Vineland, both attempting to settle here with their families, and both seeking some kind of security whilst contending with an old and crumbling house which threatens to fall down at any moment.

Willa Knox is an interesting character. Her husband Iano is a university lecturer, attracted to Vineland in search of employment after a series of failures, yet unerringly optimistic, while Willa feels all the family responsibility landing on her own shoulders. She must care for Nick, her sick father-in-law who is stubbornly right wing, racist and full of anger against immigrants (despite being one himself), whilst keeping an eye on Tig, her wayward daughter, with whom she has a complicated relationship. Early on in the book she receives some devastating news from her son, which adds yet more anxiety to her list.

Tig and her brother Zeke have an unusual relationship, not just based on typical sibling rivalry, but also on the age-old dichotomy between capitalism and socialism. Zeke is attempting to make a career investing other people’s millions, whilst Tig is content to stay at home and grow her own food, seeking fulfilment in less material things. As the novel progresses, however, it seems that Tig is the one who will teach her mother an important lesson. Willa begins to see that perhaps she has not always sought after what really matters.

Thatcher’s story is a little different, set in a wold where Darwin’s theories are ridiculed and people are afraid to trust in this new kind of science which seems to contend with their beliefs. His arch-enemy is the Headteacher of the new school where he has been appointed to teach. Cutler is vehemently opposed to anything new, including school trips and scientific experiments, openly mocking him in front of the students. But worse than that is the wealthy landowner, Landis – a man who has the whole town under his thumb, and who will not allow any kind of dissent. Thatcher soon finds an unlikely ally in his intriguing neighbour, Mrs Treat, who turns out to be a well-respected scientist.

Willa begins to research the history of Vineland in an attempt to discover more about the old house and its previous occupants. I like the way Kingsolver has woven the two stories together. The chapters alternate between time periods, and each chapter heading repeats the last few words from the chapter before, whilst the novel as a whole indicates just how much has changed, and also how much has not changed in over 100 years.

There is a clear moral at the heart of the book, encouraging us to save the natural world for the benefit of generations to come, and to focus on what really matters: love and community rather than financial security. There are some small oddities, however: that Cuba should be exemplified as an idyllic communist state, and the rather stereotypical characters in the 1870s plot – those desperately hanging on to outdated ideas versus scientists who care nothing for religion, with no-one bridging the gap in between.

I enjoyed this book immensely, though it did feel a little strained at times, attempting to cover so many themes in just one novel. It is unsettling and intriguing, linking both past and present to an uncertain and unstable future, but it also feels very real in its depiction of Willa Knox and her family, as they navigate a dysfunctional and bureaucratic healthcare system whilst becoming gradually aware that the world as they know it is slowly falling apart.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.