Flight Behaviour, By Barbara Kingsolver

Everything fits together in this beautiful study of eco-scepticism, lepidopterology and the subtleties of human behaviour

Following her Orange Prize-winning historical novel The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver returns to a contemporary canvas with this hugely ambitious tale about climate change set in the mountain pastures and forests of Appalachia. Dellarobia Turnbow (her ma picked her first name out of a women's magazine) is a restless young farm wife, five-feet-nothing with flame-coloured hair, who gave up her ambitions at 17 to marry in haste after falling pregnant. A miscarriage, 10 quarrelsome years and two children later, tied to a man she can't respect and subsisting on his parents' run-down farm, she's desperate to escape.

One November morning, she marches up the mountain in calfskin fashion boots, determined to throw her "good life away" on a reckless tryst with a younger man, the latest in a line of casual flirtations. But near the top she's met by an astonishing sight: a forest that appears to blaze with flame, "a vision of glory to stop her in the road". This almost biblical revelation with its "unearthly beauty" is enough to dispatch her homewards, all thoughts of adultery abandoned.

What Dellarobia has seen is millions of orange monarch butterflies resting in the trees ("King Billies", her ma-in-law dubs them); refugees from their usual over-wintering quarters: a mountain in Mexico recently devastated by unprecedented rainfall. Though she is not religious herself, the discovery invests Dellarobia with awe in the eyes of her God-fearing community. As news of the butterfly colony spreads, it brings tourists, welcome for their money, television crews, who distort the story, and, most crucially, a team of scientists led by a fascinating black American ecologist by the name of Ovid Byron.

Byron has made monarchs his life's work and he explains to Dellarobia how their flight from Mexico is not the great miracle everyone thinks, but a grim symptom of global warming. The butterflies, he warns, might not survive. But "I'm not here to save monarchs", he tells her. "I'm trying to read what they are writing on our wall."

Much of Kingsolver's remarkable body of work, here as elsewhere, links big scientific themes with fine subtleties of human behaviour. She moves easily between the grandiose and the personal. Flight Behaviour is perhaps closest to her 2000 novel Prodigal Summer, with its small-farm setting and its fears for the natural world, but now her warning about the precariousness of our ecosystems is almost shouted. Ovid spells out the science clearly: how the number of carbon molecules the atmosphere can hold to maintain the ordinary thermal balance has already been exceeded, and still mounts. On occasion this message threatens to overbalance the novel, but the author always pulls back in time.

Her field of inquiry is climate change denial; why so many deny that climate change is happening, or ignore it in the hope that it will go away. Perhaps it's a version of flight behaviour. She lays part of the blame on the scientists. Ovid can explain matters clearly enough to intelligent, observant Dellarobia, whom he employs to help monitor the butterflies, but she upbraids him for failing to connect with ordinary people. "Maybe your medicine's too bitter … Maybe you're writing us off, thinking we won't get it," she accuses. Interviewed by a TV reporter who's after the butterfly miracle angle, Ovid fails to meet her halfway. Instead, his erudite polemic, filmed on a cell phone, goes viral online.

Dellarobia ably carries the narrative. She understands her community, but can stand back from it, too. When Cub, her doormat of a husband, mumbles "Weather is the Lord's business", and, of Ovid, "He's not from here, that's the thing", she appreciates that the educated Ovid "would have no inkling of the great slog of effort that tied up people like her in the day-to-day". She and Cub and his stubborn parents strive to pay the bills. Cub's father wants the butterfly forest to be felled for logging to pay off farm debts made worse by a summer of rain. Still, she has sympathy with Ovid's despairing "unscientific" thought: "What if all human effort amounted basically to saving a place for ourselves to park?"

During the course of the novel, Dellarobia, like the butterflies, struggles to survive in conditions she's not made for. She's tireless in her mothering of six-year-old Preston and toddler Cordelia, battles with her tough, bitter mother-in-law, Hester, and engages finally with the difficulties at the heart of her marriage. Kingsolver demonstrates an insider's knowledge of the farming life. Her descriptions of the everyday – shearing day, immunising the sheep – are surprisingly fascinating. There are many moments of lightness, especially from Dellarobia's wild schoolmate Dovey, and of great beauty, too. It's impossible to watch the dancing butterflies with Dellarobia and her children, to see "wonder and light come into her daughter's eyes", the boy with "his arms outstretched as if he might take flight", and not be moved.

Rachel Hore's latest novel is 'The Memory Garden' (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)

Faber £18.99

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before