Reading Flight Behaviour is like being caught by a chugger unawares.
In case you aren’t familiar with English slang, a ‘chugger’ is a ‘charity mugger’ – those tabarded folk who loiter on the high street, holding a clipboard and desperately trying to get you to stop and sign away your cash to their cause. They are hated, and widely avoided, and like a boulder in a river cause the flow of human traffic to veer away to either side of them, muttering lowly and trying to avoid their eyes. But that’s because you know what to expect. You KNOW they want your money. It’s fair game. They’re only trying to earn an honest buck, while helping charity. (Incidentally, they take a commission on street sign-ups, so you’re better signing up direct on a charity’s website. So an ex-chugger friend told me.)
But imagine the horror of starting to talk to a charming stranger, enjoying the conversation and their friendliness, only to gradually notice the slow extraction of the clipboard from the bag as they move in for the kill. Kapam! You’re giving £17.50 a month to stop the persecution of disenfranchised bears in Azerbaijan.
This is what Kingsolver does in Flight Behaviour. You’re hoodwinked into enjoying a well-written tale of a woman, straining at the seams of her poor parochial life, and them – pow! You’re coshed round the head with an environmental polemic.
The story, or so you think, is about Dellarobia Turnbow. As the book opens, she’s ready to leave her family and strike out alone. She’s well drawn and sympathetic, despite a terminal case of dragging feet. It takes her the whole book to do what she’s ready to do from the start, which severely weakens the drama. The other characters are less lucky still – weakly brought to life, pale, areas of potential (such as her relationship with her mother in law) never explored. Yet this is nothing to the heavy weight of the climate change argument that lands with a thump on the book.
I’m no climate change doubter, and am appalled by the environmental patterns rolling out over the world, so don’t think that I reject an environmental narrative in principle. But what Kingsolver explores lightly at first becomes a relentless trawl, full of dire pronouncements about the irreversibility of the damage we’ve already done and the bleakness of world. It’s serious, but the way it’s treated makes it hopeless rather than galvanising. There are moments of brilliance, such as the episode in which a climate campaigner tries to prompt Dellarobia into a more ecological lifestyle only to realise that she already exceeds all of his suggestions through sheer financial necessity. But these astute observations are outweighed by the polemic steamroller.
With a lighter touch on the banner waving, Kingsolver might have had time to dig deeper into the promising character of Dellarobia. And the link between Dellarobia’s internal disruption and the disruption of the world of the butterflies might have been more sensitively explored. But it wasn’t to be. So next time you see the book in a shop, just keep your eyes on the ground, and walk on by.