In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

August 2018

Gleebooks Bookshop - Tuesday, July 24, 2018
I’ve just finished a proof of Unsheltered—Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel—scheduled for release in October. It’s made up of dual narrative threads, with each chapter linking by the use of a single, or a few, words at the end of a chapter, which then start the next one—a device I’ve always enjoyed in the Ahlberg’s Each Peach Plum Pear ... but I digress ...

Unsheltered is a serious book, with serious themes. Set in the small town in America, in both 2016 and 1871—the main characters have the rather unreliable house they live in as the common thread. The 2016 inhabitant is Willa Knox—the wife of a professor. She been a journalist and is used to moving from place to place, but is now unemployed. As the novel opens, she has a husband, a father in law, a daughter, a son, and suddenly a new baby in the mix. Her family is strapped for cash, and juggling the labyrinth of the US medical system. In the same house 200 years before this lives Thatcher Greenwood, a progressive science teacher who has a new wife, a sister in law and a mother in law. Thatcher, who is fighting to bring the new theory of evolution to his school, is in fact one of the only characters I found really sympathetic, as is his neighbour Mary, who is based on Mary Treat— a 19th century biologist who corresponded with Charles Darwin.

Willa’s family is fraught with simmering resentments, not helped by a tragedy early on in the novel that leaves her with her son’s child. Her daughter Tig is like a one woman Greek chorus, making sure everyone knows their own faults. Tig (short for Antigone) is nearly always right, and this makes for uncomfortable reading. Thatcher Greenwood is also always right, and that’s depressing too as no one wants to hear him.

This is a tale for our times, the election of Trump is playing out in the background in one narrative stream, while the voice of enlightenment is trying to be heard in the other. Ultimately the book is about family, siblings and parents, and community—something that is lacking in Willa’s family—as the relentless Tig points out to her mother. This is not a cosy book but a compelling one. Louise

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