Sunday, 10 August 2008

Kingsolver Number 1

Another novel by Barbara Kingsolver, this time her very first one, The Bean Trees.

The novel centres around Taylor Greer, a spirited young woman from rural Kentucky with two goals in life: avoiding pregnancy, and getting out of Kentucky. Having been successful in the former, she tries the latter, driving out west in a clapped-out banger. However, at a rest-stop in Oklahoma, she is accosted by a young Native American woman who coerces her to take a young child, Turtle, on her journey. When her car finally gives up the ghost in Arizona, Taylor meets Mattie, the owner of a garage, Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, a chance meeting that also affords her a job. While she works to fund the repairs to her car, Taylor begins to both face up to her new responsibilities as a mother, and to fit into the small community that her life has washed up into. Meanwhile, in the background to these domestic events, this is the time of Central American death squads and, with Arizona bordering Mexico, Mattie offers more than just service as a mechanic.

Overall, The Bean Trees is an enjoyable and humane novel dealing with the relationships between individuals, and with their immediate community. In its relative simplicity, wholesome characters and life-positive story, it reminds me of novels like The Honk and Holler Opening Soon by Billie Letts. In fact, were it not for the strand concerning refugees from Guatemala, it could easily be mistaken for a novel by the latter author. It's also one of those novels where - in a good sense - one can almost imagine the film of it. It has just the right complexity and eventfulness to make for a good film.

It's interesting to read this Kingsolver novel after reading two of her later novels. While The Bean Trees is less ambitious in terms of its structure and themes, it was her first novel after all, and it's not hard to see the beginnings of her later, more complex novels in this one. In terms of structure, multiple narrative strands appear here, but are used more to push the plot forward than to provide alternative viewpoints or texture. Like Animal Dreams, politics plays something of a role here, although only latterly and considerably less angrily. One absence from this novel is any mention of ecology. That said, it wouldn't be an obvious theme to sit alongside the novel's narrative. It may also be that Kingsolver didn't want her first novel to challenge readers with what can be a preachy theme.

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