Friday, 22 February 2008

A biologist writes

I first came across Barbara Kingsolver pre-blog via her 2000 novel, Prodigal Summer. The first thing to strike me was her, at times, lyrical use of prose, and her skill at capturing the colloquialisms and truncations of spoken language. She didn't need to describe where a character came from or what their background was, it was obvious from what they said and the way in which they said it. The second thing to strike me was her fluency with ecology, and with the issues where this subject butts up against humans. Prodigal Summer has three distinct strands each of which has strong ecological undertones that strengthen and enrich its narrative. This fluency isn't too much of a surprise when one discovers that Kingsolver is a former ecologist, but it's still a rarity in my experience (certainly for literary fiction; less so for science fiction, although it's usually bludgeoned in there). Anyway, for my birthday/Christmas, C bought me her earlier novel, Animal Dreams.

The narrative centre of the novel is Codi, a former trainee doctor now returning to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, after an extended absence. She is returning in part to care for her doctor father, Homero, a standoffish pillar of the local community, who his patients fear is beginning to suffer from dementia. However, Codi is also returning amidst troubles in her own life, and with ghosts from her past in Grace to exorcise. In a backdrop to events in Arizona, and communicated in the novel by way of letters, Codi's sister Hallie works in Nicaragua teaching sustainable agriculture.

As the plot strands unfurl, Codi gradually comes to find her place in Grace, somewhere she never fitted into while growing up. Acting as a teacher, she enthuses her students, ultimately leading them in a local crusade to counter the water pollution that is slowly killing the town. However, slowly slotting back into the town creates a tension for Codi, one that is bound up in past events involving her Native American, former boyfriend, Loyd, now a train driver. Years on, they are gradually spiralling together again, but Codi, still carrying a secret from the past, is applying the brakes to retain her distance.

The novel features several Hispanic and Native American themes, but weaves them in carefully, making them almost flow naturally from the narrative of Codi's gradual absorption into Grace. There are political themes too: Codi's sister, Hallie, moves to Nicaragua to teach local people more sustainable farming techniques and dies after having been captured by the Contras. Although only noted in passing, that the paymaster of the Contras is the US is remarked upon angrily. Another political theme in the novel is the town's fight against the mining interests whose polluted water will eventually force residents to abandon it. In this the novel paints a positive picture of the role of both individual and community activism. What starts as a science project for Codi expands into something much more significant.

In passing, the novel's treatment of Homero's illness is handled very convincingly. The gradual fragmentation of his mind, and the merging of his past with the present is very skillfully done. Kingsolver isn't content to merely describe how others see Homero, and instead animates his inner life in a way that is both moving and confusing at the same time. This confusion for the reader follows that of Homero himself.

While not quite as effective as Prodigal Summer, in part because of the ambition of its themes, Animal Dreams is another solid novel by Kingsolver, admirable for both its literary/lyrical flourishes, and for its command of narrative and themes. Doubtless the rest of Kingsolver's back-catalogue will find its way into the blog at some point.

P.S. I can't help but remark at the shockingly poor Photoshopping of the novel's front cover. It's clearly a landscape shot onto which the silhouettes of a station wagon and woman have been crudely plastered. One might have expected better from a professional publishing company well-versed in the carefully winning presentation of product, but I guess not.

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