A Novel Ian Likes: Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Deanna is a biologist, living a solitary life doing research in a forest. Recently married and more-recently widowed Lusa finds herself managing a farm and dealing with unfriendly in-laws. Nannie and Garnett are neighbours and find that their beliefs are perfectly disposed to antagonise each other.

Barbara Kingsolver is a bona fide phenomenon. She has won more awards than any sane person might dream of, has had almost every book of hers become an international bestseller, while still being genuinely brilliant and original. And she does it all by telling stories about just a small cast of characters facing challenges that are unique to them but are by no means the stuff of legend or international fame. The only author that I think even comes close to her for producing work that is prodigiously literate and literary while still being very accessible and readable would be A. S. Byatt.

I’ve only read about half of her novels but each one of them could have been a candidate for this column. I first came to her in the late ‘90s when The Bean Trees was posted for a book club selection. I devoured it in a weekend, and then my wife did, and we couldn’t stop talking about it. It was a tale that just flowed off the page, populated with characters we came to know as well as some of our own friends. We read the sequel, Pigs In Heaven, a couple of years later, and enjoyed that just as much, though it was a very different book in tone to the first.

Prodigal Summer is the story of one Summer and how it changes the characters that live through it. It affects each of them in different ways and manages to surprise you completely when you discover the connections between them. There’s also a tremendous amount of research and knowledge behind each of the three main storylines but the plot wears it lightly: it just comes across as the characters’ expertise in various fields.

But it’s mostly a novel about how we deal with change in our lives and how the fallout from that change can alter how we interact with the world.

And there are different kinds of change for each of the main characters, a change that affects their core beliefs about what they are as a person.

For Deanna, the change comes from the result of a whirlwind affair with a backpacking hunter who challenges, though not really all that much, what she believes about ecology and the role of Man as a predator. He also forces her to cope with the prospect of company after she discovers that she is pregnant.

Lusa finds herself in charge of a failing farm and makes a quick success of changing the crop from tobacco to goats. But she is unsure of what impact this will have on her relationship with her deceased husbands’ brothers and sisters, all of whom grew up on the farm and have an interest in how it performs. She must navigate a whole new dynamic from what she is used to to maintain the legacy of a family she has only recently joined.

Nannie and Garrett have to negotiate their different farming practices and belief systems – Nannie from one based on the latest science around organic farming, Garrett with his trust in chemicals and creationism – and come to some kind of understanding about where they each stand.

These are all ideas and conflicts that readers can get behind and which make great stories, but what I love about this book is the way that Kingsolver gets across the idea of interconnectivity, in nature as well as in societies. In one of her first appearances in the novel, Deanna gives us insights into how all things in nature are connected…

                                “I guess to hunters these woods feel like a zoo, but who feeds the animals and cleans up the cage, do you think? Without worms and termites you’d be clear up to your hat brim in dead tree branches looking for a clear shot.”

… and affect each other and we spend the rest of the book seeing evidence of this all through the small, intertwined world the characters inhabit.

Those worlds get larger, though. We meet Lusa’s new extended family almost as she does, learning about their history and their recent tragedies which don’t just include what has happened to her husband. Deanna’s world extends far beyond the park where she works and lives but only makes infrequent encroachments upon her territory, a metaphor that does not go unwasted. Garret and Nannie change their attitudes towards each other when they realise that there is more than their rivalries can deal with.

As with all of Kingsolver’s novels (the ones I’ve read, at least), the characters end the novel not very far from where they started but are inhabiting a place with a different viewpoint. I’m not going to give away anything about what happens, but it is both ordinary and astonishing.

But even if ordinary lives aren’t your thing, the writing alone is totally worth the ride. Kingsolver completely inhabits her characters and their environments in a way that many other authors can only dream about. Deanna, for example, lives in a world that she has become a part of herself; her reactions to the arrival of other people are almost those of a wild animal (albeit a wild animal with postgraduate qualifications in biology) and her instincts have become sharper and more attuned to nonverbal communication than to the nuances of human behaviour.

And it’s a book filled with the fecundity and peril of nature. Every page, it seems, reminds us that our primal natures are not very far from the surface and need only the slightest trigger to bring them out. Garrett thinks he has a handle on how nature works but realises that he is completely baffled by elements beyond what he thinks he can control; Lusa, an urban girl thrust into the great outdoors, is constantly surprised at just how beautifully everything in her new world connects, even if she doesn’t like the circumstances behind it; and Deanna, the most qualified of all the cast in understanding what is involved in delicate ecologies, finds herself bewildered when she feels new life within herself.

It’s a novel that I first came to when I was starting to get back into teaching after a disastrous early start to my career. I had taken a break for a year or so, gathered what was left of my self-esteem together and threw my hat back into the ring of classroom work. I was like Deanna, dealing with a hostile environment that became less threatening the more I opened myself up to learning about it; like Lusa, I was working among people that I thought were judging me for being rubbish when I was just inexperienced and unknown; and, like Garrett and Nannie, I had to accept that there were things that I couldn’t change until I understood them more, and even that wasn’t a guarantee.

Barbara Kingsolver taught me that people can be their own worst enemy and their own best chance, often in the same moment. That was something that I needed at that point. It’s something that I often need to be reminded about as well, even twenty years later.

You can find out more about Barbara Kingsolver at http://barbarakingsolver.net/

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