BOOK REVIEW / Knocking at heaven's door: 'Pigs in Heaven' - Barbara Kingsolver: Faber, 14.99

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HEAVEN is an easy place to get to in Barbara Kingsolver's work. In one of the stories in her 1989 collection, Homeland, a mother is begged by her daughter to take her to the decidedly earthbound Ice Cream Heaven. In her new novel a mother is forced by her daughter (Taylor and Turtle, respectively) to go to Heaven, Oklahoma, deep in Cherokee country. But while this might not be the eerie yonder, strange things still happen there. For one thing, people hardened by time begin to wonder whether avoiding life is any better than getting kicked by it.

Mother and daughter go to Heaven because they aren't, in fact, mother and daughter. Six-year-old Turtle is Cherokee by birth. She was given to Taylor a few years earlier by a drunken mother fearful of what her husband might to do to the little baby (he had already abused her). Yet although Taylor legally adopted Turtle, according to Cherokee law she did no such thing. One of their hot-shot young lawyers wants Turtle back. She acknowledges that this might not do Turtle much good, but it is the continuity of the tribe that is at stake.

The natural state of the writer, Alan Bennett once said, is to be in two minds. Opulent and jaunty, Pigs in Heaven revels in uncertainty, yet its images - chiefly domestic in origin - have a startling clarity. The early morning horizon has the 'colour of rising dough', the sunset the 'colour of cherries and lemons'; Taylor's hair 'smells like a thunderstorm, and her shoulder . . . smells like beach rocks'. The book's insights sound like something you already knew: 'Getting old is just a matter of getting easier to see through, until all your failing insides are in plain view and everyone's business.' And though such moments (there are many of them) announce themselves - lift themselves off the page - they never feel contrived.

Kingsolver's open-mindedness on the question of what's best for Turtle makes for a challenging read. Pigs in Heaven wrestles with moral problems: it isn't a worked-out book, and no one side comes out on top. Like Taylor, who on her confusing odyssey through Kentucky and Oklahoma doesn't know where she's going to end up, the book doesn't try to force you one way or the other. Kingsolver is mindful of everyone in the novel; nobody, save Alice's husband (Taylor's father), gets a raw deal, and since we never meet him except through Alice's thoughts - 'You can't rehabilitate a man who collects light bulbs' - he can be excused his lack of grace notes. Even Annawake, the young Cherokee lawyer who decides to contest the legal status of Turtle's adoption, and who is given to thinking that 'all you needed was white skin to have an easy life', is too roundly conceived to come out as the villain of the piece.

If the book has a baddie, it is television, the terrible simplifier, where 'you only have to worry about what shows up front'. It is a nice touch to have Cash, the Cherokee who becomes Alice's lover, blast a television to bits at the end.

The only time Barbara Kingsolver drifts into the cultural shallows is when she has Taylor realise motherhood's most vital lesson - that 'everything truly important is washable'. The joke is too glib for this book. 'If you leave out all the bullshit in life, there's not that much left to say, is there?' asks Taylor at one point. Barbara Kingsolver leaves out pretty much all the bullshit in this ravishing, lucent, heavenly novel. She still has an awful lot to say.

(Photograph omitted)

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