A review of “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver, with quotations, reflecting on what it says about the mood of contemporary America.
Barbara Kingsolver is a great writer. “Unsheltered” pulses with beautiful prose about two families living in a crumbling house in Vineland, New Jersey, 150 years apart.
When Thatcher Greenwood, the hero of the 1870s cycle, scolds his wife Rose, we hear that: Her eyes flared like a struck match before she looked away.
As the FT says, the book is – in many ways – magnificent.
Willa Knox, the hero of the contemporary cycle, admires her grandson: She lay with her chin on her forearms admiring the baby’s wren-feather eyelashes and delicate nostrils, the bottom lip tucked into the infant overbite. The melon of belly expanding, contracting.
Each chapter ends with the title of the following chapter. We learn that Willa, faced with a grisly task, mommed up and did the deed. This is elegant, powerful stuff.
But the book drove me half crazy. Here are 9 reasons why.
- The linking of developments in the 1870s, such as oppressive capitalism and the fight against Darwin, to events in the present day, is heavy-handed. Take this speech by the scientist Mary Treat (a real historical character): “I suppose it is in our nature… when men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.” Thatcher replies: “If that is our nature, then nature is madness. These are more dangerous times than we have ever known.” OK, we get it.
- In Unsheltered’s contemporary US, everything is beyond awful. When Willa takes her father-in-law, Nick, to a clinic for treatment, they are turned away. She says to the receptionist: “I know this probably changes nothing, but can I just tell you that my father-in-law is oozing blood and fluid from most of his lower body? His pain has to be off the charts. Willa’s eloquence does not succeed in getting treatment for Nick.
- Nick is a parody of shock-jock sentiments, railing against foreigners, women and racial minorities in a torrent of slurs designed to enrage Willa. One mild example: “Thing is, if there’s girls and Mexicans in a factory, there’s not going to be enough jobs for the men”. Nick says much worse, and so often, you want to turn the page to escape him.
- Willa is permanently depressed about everything. On a day out with her charming and feckless husband Iano, she despairs: “I’m sorry. I know you hate this. But you might just have to let me be sad, OK?” “OK. But for what?” She shrugged, looking away. “I don’t know. Damn Hurricane Sandy and the damn Park Service budget cuts. We can’t afford to stop doing the shit that’s screwing up the weather, and can’t afford to pick up the pieces after we do our shit.”
- Even the dog, Dixie, is at death’s door: Dixie… who now had a palsy in her hind legs and other signs of being not long for this world… was starting to make a high-pitched whine they’d learned not to ignore. Her bladder no longer lasted beyond the edge of the yard, if even that.
- Willa’s family is beyond dysfunctional. She yearns to be closer to Tig, her improbably eloquent grown-up daughter, but at a Christmas pageant, things go wrong: Tig fist-bumped herself into the crowd, much happier there than with her own family, Willa noted with the habitual pang…. [Willa] shook her head, tight lipped… because words might unstop the flood of emotion she’d kept pressed in her throat for hours. It was just too embarrassing to walk around sobbing at a festival of Christmas lights. Fake cheer it would have to be. No wonder Iano observes: “You’ve been sad for a hundred years.”
- Tig sums up the state of contemporary America: “You prepped for the wrong future. It’s not just you. Everybody your age is, like, crouching inside this box made out of what they already believe. You think it’s a fallout shelter or something but it’s a piece of shit box, Mom. It’s cardboard, drowning in the rain, going all floppy. And you’re saying, ‘This is all there is, it will hold up fine. this box will keep me safe!”
- By contrast, Tig highlights the wonders of Cuba: “Oh, the food was amazing. And the music. They had this super smooth band playing mambos and sarabands. The singer looked all prim but then opens her mouth and out comes this killing sexy voice, and of course we all danced, between courses. Everybody dances in Cuba. They’ve perfected all the fun things that don’t cost anything, like dancing and sex.”
- Willa reflects on how much better things were in the past: Mary and Thatcher had lived in enviable times, when biologists were discovering new species right and left, not watching them go extinct. Later, when she takes refuge in a church, we hear that Willa accepted her usual front-row seat on the crumble of civilisation.
Eventually (no spoilers) both Thatcher and Willa achieve a kind of redemption. The key is a shedding of possessions and rejection of consumerism.
The final chapters of both cycles hammer the message home: Tig says: “It feels like the end of the world when you can’t have the things you always wanted. But it’s not the end of the world… without all that crap overhead, you’re standing in the daylight… what you have to do is look for blue sky.” A few pages later and 150 years earlier, Thatcher reflects that: Without shelter, we stand in daylight.
Similarly, when Willa is sorting out old papers near the end of the book she finds a scrap given to her by her mother with a text to be read at her funeral: Willa wiped her face with the back of her hand. “It was here in this box, with these completely unrelated things that weren’t important to me, inside other boxes of completely unrelated things. I had too many things. Just too much goddamn stuff.”
The text which Willa’s mother wanted reading at her funeral, from My Antonia by Willa Cather, is beautiful:
I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
The book ends in a kind of Marie Kondo catharsis. I found the conclusion – you’re better off without a load of possessions weighing you down – sympathetic and right, linking elegantly back to the title (of which a less elegant version would be: “How to be unsheltered”). I think a lot of people will enjoy the book and its message.
But I felt a bit lectured, getting there.
You can also see Unsheltered as a vivid reflection of the contemporary mood in the US. Nick may feel an absurd parody this side of the pond, or he may reflect millions of real Americans – I don’t know. Willa’s despair about the state of the world seems OTT – yet it also reminds me of my friend’s anxiety about terrorism in my post Things are getting better. Not worse. The depiction of a polarised, paralysed society where half the population is driven barmy by the other half and most people don’t seem to be making much progress may be a faithful reflection of the United States of America today.
But before you, too, despair, bear in mind that although many of the richest countries, including the US, have fallen behind, relative to the rest of the world, in the last couple of decades, that is in part because a lot of the rest of the world has been catching them up. For the world as a whole, that is a good thing.
If you find what I have just said puzzling or dubious, see my post DON’T PANIC: a communications masterclass, about the late great Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, showing that the state of the world is better than you think. If you don’t have time to do that, look at this incredible animated chart of life expectancy (a good surrogate for living standards) from 1800-2015 for all the countries of the world, produced by Rosling’s Gapminder foundation.
You should also bear in mind Tuchman’s law, coined by the eponymous American historian in 1971: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).
Finally, see my illustrated story The Americans for my own attempt to figure out this fascinating and challenging nation. Many splendid tales.
Shares of and comments on this post, as always, welcome.
With Dorothy Berkowitz in Yonkers, setting out on my what became “The Americans”