Friday, November 2, 2018

Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Release date:
18th October 2018 (United Kingdom)
 24th October 2018 (Australia and New Zealand)
I received this book from the publisher as a result of entering a competition.
Unsheltered can be purchased on Amazon. 

This book follows two separate storylines in two distinctly different time periods. The first is set in 2016, and follows the story of Willa Knox and her family, the struggles they face in an era of political unrest in America and a time of great upheaval within their family. 
The second storyline is set in 1871, and is told from the perspective of Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher in a town called Vineland, which is essentially ruled by Charles Landis. Thatcher struggles with the society in which he finds himself as a result of his wife and her mother wishing to move back to Vineland. Thatcher wants to teach science according to Darwinian Theory, but as this theory was new at the time and was seen as heretical he is prevented from doing so.

I don’t want to give too much away as this book is one of those slowly unfolding treasures that lets you discover things about the characters in good time but suffice to say there’s a lot of unhappiness being shared around by all the characters. 

This book has a very intriguing collection of characters. In 2016, we have Willa Knox, her husband Iano, Iano’s father Nick, and Willa and Nick’s two children Antigone (Tig) and Zeke, as well as Zeke’s son Aldus (or Dusty). Another pivotal character, who is never mentioned by name is a man running for president of the United States. A billionaire who boasted of being able to commit murder on Fifth Avenue without consequence should he so choose. (I’ll let you figure out who the author is referring to there…)
In 1871, we have Thatcher Greenwood, his wife, her mother and sister, as well as Mary Treat (a naturalist and correspondant of Charles Darwin), Charles Landis and other supporting characters. 
What sets this novel apart is that Mary Treat and Charles Landis are both actual people who existed in history, Mary Treat really was a botanist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and Charles Landis really was a property developer who developed the town that would become known as Vineland. 

The writing in this book is quite lyrical at times, but can also drag on for needless paragraphs at other times. I found myself amused by character descriptions and immersed in the lives of Willa and Thatcher quite by surprise. The first third of this book was difficult for me to get into but suddenly I couldn’t put it down and I just had to know what happened to everyone. 

There is no question that Barbara Kingsolver is not a fan or supporter of a certain US President and she is quite vocal about that in this book. However it is done in such a way that it is subtle enough that generations to come may not even know to whom she is alluding. Her descriptions of this man are very unflattering but very true to the nature of the book, especially when told from the perspective of Tig, who is what one might call a modern day hippie. 

Her writing is not what I would call succinct. As I said, it is quite lyrical and flowery in parts and I personally enjoyed that, but I think a lot of people will be put off by it and will be sitting waiting for the plot to “start” and before they’ve realised it has indeed started, the novel is well under way. The story is one that creeps up on you. There is no formula that was followed to write Unsheltered that I could pinpoint. There was no clear cut three act structure with the typical beginning, middle, and end. I think this is what initially made me feel like the first third of this book dragged. I was waiting for it to follow a conventional formula and it did not. 

The blending of historical fact and fiction in this book is incredibly interesting to read and made me want to know everything about Mary Treat and Charles Landis, however I resisted the urge to google these people while I was reading and I urge you to do the same. Spoilers abound on google. 

I think some of the “conflicts” in this book are a bit over the top, the animosity between Tig and Zeke as siblings is a bit heavy handed and would be much more appropriate if the family dynamic was portrayed as more toxic, rather than normalising the dislike of these siblings. The arguments they have go from politics to personal jabs far too quickly and become much more hurtful than they needed to. I feel like Kingsolver’s intent is to show that Tig and Zeke are polar opposites, but that came through very clearly without it needing to be quite so harsh between the two characters. In saying that, the way Kingsolver “resolved” their relationship was pretty perfect in my opinion. I can’t say more than that without major spoilers, but I think that particular resolution was perfect. 

The other resolutions I was less happy with. Particularly the conclusion with Thatcher’s storyline. It felt rushed and not at all natural. I think the intent was to show that Thatcher’s life didn’t end there and that he went on to do bigger and better things but the ending just felt like a conveniently tied knot. It didn’t feel true to what real life is truly like, nor what it would have been like in the 1870’s. The conclusions to the rest of the characters’ arcs and their individual stories all felt a little rushed and a little too haphazardly thrown together. It felt like we went from full throttle plot and storytelling to “…the end” within the span of 30 pages, when in reality it could have been 60 pages. 30 pages in the first act could have been better put to use in the final act. 

I’ve been wracking my brains trying to think of other similar books that I could compare this to and it’s a struggle. One of the books that comes to mind is The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, which was published in 1977 and is set in Australia, written by an Australian author, so I’m really not sure how helpful that comparison is! But the main similarities are that it’s a story of family and community, rather than a novel that fits with another genre like mystery, or thriller or romance or any number of other genres. This is just a really good story about how families grow and change. 

I love this book, I genuinely do. As I said, I found it difficult to get into within the first 100 pages, but after that I couldn’t put it down, and I’m not even sure I could tell you why I couldn’t put it down except that it was incredibly readable and satisfying. This is my first Barbara Kingsolver novel and now I am absolutely going to add more of her books to my TBR pile. 

I give this book a 4/5 stars. The only reason it didn’t get 5 stars is that first 100 pages dragging on. 

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