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Sat Oct 25 09:03:50 SAST 2014

Exploring sinister dimension to climate's butterfly effect

Hermione Hoby | 27 November, 2012 00:07

Any novel, says Barbara Kingsolver, "begins in a thousand places" but Flight Behaviour, the 57-year-old's 14th book, had one particularly vivid spark among its many beginnings.

"I woke up one morning with a vision," she says plainly, speaking over the phone from her farmhouse in Washington County, Virginia.

"I don't know whether it was a dream; it felt very dreamlike. I saw - I don't want to say what, because I've made a point of not revealing the secret - the beautiful thing that arrives, that starts this novel rolling. I just woke up and saw it, in these forested mountains where I live."

But that beautiful thing needs mentioning, so the spoiler-sensitive should look away now.

Dellarobia, a young, deeply dissatisfied mother married to the devoted but maddeningly passive Cub, climbs the mountain behind her farmhouse, intent on an adulterous rendezvous. But she's stopped, and as she sees it, granted salvation, by an unearthly sight: a blazing orange consternation, "a lake of fire" which has "swept the mountain in perfect silence".

It is not a forest fire, but an ultimately far more destructive natural phenomenon: thousands of monarch butterflies, sent by ecological disaster to settle in the town's chilly Tennessee forest.

Most of the novel's church-going community hail the butterflies as a divine gift, others as a money-making attraction, but Dellarobia, through the tutelage of the magisterially named scientist, Ovid Byron, comes to understand their grave ecological significance.

There's an unorthodox love story here, as well as several beautifully poised meditations on belief and knowledge, elevating what could have been a rather sanctimonious novel into something compelling and subtle. We're led to see, along with Byron and Dellarobia, not that "God moves in mysterious ways", but that, "everything else is in motion while God does not move at all. God sits still, perfectly at rest; the silver dollar at the bottom of the well; the question".

"I didn't even understand what I'd imagined," Kingsolver says, recalling the vision she had, "but I spent all day thinking about it and I'm enough of a biologist to ponder what it would really mean if that did happen here. I immediately saw the whole thing.

"I think the novel is very much about how we understand and process what we see and how very true it is how we decide first what we believe and then collect evidence to support it, rather than the reverse.

"When you look at the conversation about climate change, it's baffling that everyone is presented with the same facts yet come away with very different convictions about what's going on."

Kingsolver was a scientist before she was a novelist, so is better-versed than most in those facts. She graduated from DePauw University in Indiana in 1977 with a degree in biology and then went on to study ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Freelance work as a science journalist followed. It wasn't until 1988, when she was 33 years old and a new mother, that she published her first novel.

"Being a novelist and being a mother have exactly coincided in my life: the call from my agent saying that I had a contract for my first novel - that was on my answering phone message when I got back from the hospital with my first child." (It is, she agrees, a coincidence far too blatant in its symbolism to ever be permissible in fiction.)

That first novel was 1988's The Bean Trees, but it was The Poisonwood Bible, published 10 years later, that sent its author into the international bestselling stratosphere. The novel, which follows a missionary family in colonial Congo, remains a book club favourite. In earning both a Pulitzer Prize nomination and an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey, it also sealed Kingsolver's privileged position as a writer of, respectively, both literary weight and enormous popular appeal.

"Every time I write a new novel about something sombre and sobering and terrible I think, 'oh Lord, they're not going to want to go here'. But they do. Readers of fiction read, I think, for a deeper embrace of the world; of reality. That's brave."

Kingsolver says she has followed the data on climate change, closely, "every day", for years.

"It's flat-out terrifying if we let ourselves face it full on. It's moved beyond the level of abstracts delivered to us by scientists, or predictions about the future. We're now well into living with a changed climate. I had already come to the sense of how serious things are before I began and that's part of why I had to write the novel. The people who are already suffering the most from a drastically unpredictable, changing climate are conservative rural farmers, and these people are at this moment least equipped to understand climate change. I wanted to know how is this happening, why it is happening?

"This is the world we're in and that was my challenge - to keep my contract with the reader, which is, fundamentally: I will not make you want to kill yourself."

She laughs, and adds: "That's a good start, you know?"

The world of Flight Behaviour is Kingsolver's own; she grew up in rural Kentucky, "a very class-conscious place, in a poor rural community where labour ran up against big capital".

Southern Appalachian culture, she says, is "mostly derided in the world - hillbillies are one of the last ethnic groups who are routinely mocked without consequence".

But as ever, all her characters - even the ignorant, venal ones - are handled with sympathy. - ©The Daily Telegraph

  • Flight Behaviour, Faber and Faber, at Exclusive Books, R215

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