The above butterfly is a dingy or dainty swallowtail, which I spotted browsing on the miniature irises in the front garden. It obligingly remained still while I photographed it. I don’t know why it is called dingy as it’s quite a pretty butterfly, slightly larger than the common white cabbage butterflies that are often seen flitting around the garden.
Anyway, I took the photo as it coincided with the book I was currently reading, Barbara Kingsolver’s splendid new novel Flight Behaviour, which, among other things, is about butterflies, the Monarch Butterfly in particular.
I finished the novel the other morning and found it to be an engrossing and very enjoyable read, as good as any of Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier works.
In this book she returns to a rural location, in Southern Appalachia where not surprisingly Kingsolver lives, and sets the scene around a freak of nature, the massing of monarch butterflies where they have never massed before.
Dellarobia Turnbow is the engaging heroine of this tale, shot gun married to the boy who got her pregnant at 17, mother of two young children, living with her husband Cub on his family’s sheep farm, with very few options for escape, hogtied to the dreary sameness of her life.
The novel opens with Dellarobia, who is prone to infatuations with men other than her husband, on her way to finally consummate one such sexual attraction up on the mountain above her house. She is stopped from throwing away her reputation by the sight of the monarch butterflies, massing in millions up there - a veritable sea of fire that strikes her so profoundly that she forgoes her assignation and returns home. Because she is short sighted she doesn’t recognise the butterflies as such, but sees instead a vision of unearthly beauty.
It turns out to be an anomaly in the butterflies behaviour, the monarchs missing their normal migration location in Mexico to come together in Tennessee.
Flight Behaviour is a novel bearing a powerful message about global warming, and it is also a portrait of an isolated rural community, to whom aberrations in weather are seen as an act of god. It is more than that of course, the title of the novel refers to more than butterflies.
Dellarobia is not typical of the community she inhabits, a religious sceptic with a rebellious streak and a lively intellect that is wasted in the life she is obliged to live.
The arrival of scientist Dr Ovid Byron to investigate the butterfly phenomenon, changes both Dellarobia’s life and that of her young son Preston. They are both intellectually stimulated by the study of the insects and enlightened to the fate of the world in the wake of climate change.
I’ve always thought that Barbara Kingsolver creates wonderful male characters, and Ovid Byron is one of her best, charismatic and attractive, an intelligent man dedicated to his subject of study – Monarch butterflies.
The novel is filled with marvellous scenes and set pieces, from the evangelical reaction to the butterfly phenomenon starring Dellarobia as its discoverer, though she never lets on how she came to know about the butterflies; to scenes in second hand stores where, being poor, the Turnbow family are obliged to shop, and Dellarobia’s brush with fame through a media coverage that goes viral on the internet, where she is dubbed the Venus of the Butterflies.
The tone of the novel is alternately wry and serious, the writing witty and lyrical and of course informed by Barbara Kingsolver’s lucid intelligence.
Flight Behaviour is already my favourite read for 2013, and it will take a really special book to knock it off the top of the list. Of Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier books, Flight Behaviour reminded me most of Prodigal Summer, a novel I reread regularly it being a big favourite of mine. It is also set in a backwoods rural community and also deals with environmental issues.