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Fiction Review The first great political novel of the Trump era

JOHN GREEN recommends an acute portrait of a troubled and divided US by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered
by Barbara Kingsolver
(Faber & Faber, £8.99)

IN THIS novel, Barbara Kingsolver carries forward the strong commitment to social justice and environmental care expressed so strongly in her previous books and demonstrates again that she is one of the US’s foremost socially critical writers of fiction.

Her narrative centres around an old house falling apart, a recurring symbol of social decay. It was built in a small US town which, created in the mid-19th century as a model community, is beholden to its wealthy entrepreneur founder who very much dominates and controls its citizens’ lives.

The story oscillates between characters living in the 19th century when the town was built and a family living there today facing up to a Trump presidency. The comparisons and parallels Kingsolver draws are instructive and illuminating.

Her characters, vividly drawn, have psychological depth and insight and the doom and gloom in the face of what seem like insurmountable problems are leavened by the author’s vibrant sense of humour — you laugh one minute and cry the next.

The two protagonists in the 19th-century narrative are Mary Teal, an early feminist and naturalist who corresponds with Darwin and other leading scientists of the era and Thatcher, a local science teacher who’s ostracised and blacklisted for his attempt to teach real science and enlightened attitudes in what is a staunchly fundamentalist and conservative Christian community.

The modern-day family, a journalist and her lecturer husband, are living life on meagre wages. She is freelance and he has no tenure and is looking after his seriously ill father. His children, although they ostensibly have left home, bring their own problems and concerns back to the house.
 
Kingsolver graphically evokes what it is like to live in the modern-day US as part of the growing precariat who survive on low and uncertain wages, lack universal healthcare and contend with an absence of a social infrastructure that could support vulnerable families.

Alongside this is the acute awareness of impending environmental disaster.

Yet the mother’s “drop-out and misfit” daughter, returning from a short sojourn in Cuba and enthused by the Cubans’ approach to environmental protection, self-sufficiency and social justice, is able to teach her parents lessons in socialism.

Despite the dismal political environment, this is an inspiring book about strong and feisty individuals who refuse to bow down in the face of capitalist hegemony.

Her power lies in airing universal issues through the minutiae of the lives of ordinary people and, in a totally non-didactic way, Kingsolver gives wise advice to all facing turbulent and dangerous times.

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