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Barbara Kingsolver

The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behaviour, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards - including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize - returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively readable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerising story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realise that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred - whether family or friends - and in the strength of the human spirit.


Barbara Kingsolver is perhaps best known for her award-winning novels The Poisonwood Bible (1998) and The Lacuna (2009), though her numerous other works will also be familiar to many. With her much-anticipated new novel Unsheltered, Kingsolver brings her signature use of metaphor to issues about which she is concerned, and with which she intends to concern her readers. Both the title of the novel and the fundamentally unsound buildings that form the central settings for the two major plots function literally and metaphorically, serving to underscore the fragility of modern American democracy and society. There is nothing subtle about this signposting; Kingsolver’s fiction is her political activism.

Kingsolver introduces two families living in different centuries in Vineland, New Jersey who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. In 2016, Willa Knox is a (recently, unwillingly) freelance journalist, attempting to keep her world turning despite family tragedy, career crises and a home that may crumble at any moment due to its inexplicable lack of foundations. In 1871, Thatcher Greenwood is a newlywed science teacher who must also grapple with a complicated family and community, financial misfortune, and a structurally unsound home.

Despite existing in different eras, the two families are linked not only by their similar plight and all that it portends, but also by a shared interest in the accomplished naturalist Mary Treat, a central character in the novel and a real historical figure from the area, celebrated in her own right, but also for her collaboration with Charles Darwin.

Through her large but not unwieldy cast, Kingsolver explores the specific anxieties of the present, as well as issues that have plagued enquiring, original minds throughout history.

Unsheltered will appeal to existing Kingsolver readers, and those looking for resonant historical fiction with political undercurrents.

Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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