Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

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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Barbara Kingsolver

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