With Buster the hermit crab

USA: HIGH TIDE IN TUSCON by Barbara Kingsolver, Faber pounds 9.99

Never judge a book by its cover, but what about its dedication? My spirits sank a trifle as I noted that this volume is inscribed for "Steven and every singing miracle". They positively plummeted through the wacky old introduction with its list of all the wise, warm, supportive folk without whom the author could not function.

Where do people find these pit props? Why is it that I am attended only by those who would thwart or bankrupt me? With a final daffy wave to her daughter - "you have my permission to tell your friends I'm a lunatic" - Kingsolver plunges into her title piece, the poignant tale of a hermit crab who lives in a tank in her kitchen, but has adapted its biorhythms to the cyclic movements of an imaginary ocean, ghostly echo of its native Caribbean, high tide in the Arizona desert. Kingsolver, a former student of animal behaviour, describes this small, displaced and fascinating creature, unhappily named Buster, in a vivid, unsentimental prose which is informative and moving. But then, just as though she were afraid of seeming too serious, back she trips into her zany life-force-celebrant persona: "This is the lesson of Buster, the poetry that camps outside the halls of science: jump for joy, hallelujah."

Throughout this assortment of pieces, adapted from articles in publications as various as Natural History, the New York Times and the grimly titled Parenting, that folksy voice recurs, the crackerbarrel sage: "Let me never forget to distinguish want from need. Let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love." This is a big pity, for Kingsolver's subject matter, reflecting her experience as a scientist, a Civil Rights campaigner, a mother, a novelist, a conservationist, is never less than compelling, and when she forgets about herself she does write well.

Two pieces indicate her power and versatility. The best is a straightforward, understated account of the Titan missiles which for two decades (until the early Eighties) surrounded selected American cities, each one "hulking like some huge, dumb killer dog waiting for orders". Those orders, of course, had they come, would have brought instant nuclear holocaust. Ironic and passionate, Kingsolver here dissects the "great American capacity for denying objective reality in favour of defence mythology" and she concludes with a brief glimpse of the museum in Hiroshima, fact and artefact displayed without comment.

In 1991 Kingsolver, appalled by the Gulf War, left the States and lived for a year in the Canary Islands. "Paradise Lost", the second exceptional piece, describes a visit to La Gomera, where 500 years earlier Columbus set sail for the New World. This is a passage of densely descriptive writing which never lapses into self-indulgence and constantly delights with sudden, swift images.

Kingsolver excels in such vivid and economical presentation: a group of volcanic plants are "huge, spherical bouquets of curved silver swords"; an elderly man offers his seat on a bus to a weary infant: "in his weightless bearing I caught sight of the decades-old child, treasured by the manifold mothers of his neighbo[u]rhood".

Another pleasure is the wealth of information about the natural world. Splendid woolly pigs called javelinas proceed on their knees like pilgrims, trundling pumpkins; there is a divine, small zebra-striped goose called the ne-ne who calls in a melancholy monotone, lives in a crater and "has lost the need for webbed feet because it shuns the sea, foraging instead in foggy meadows, grown languid and tame in the absence of predators". In deep waters drifts the post-coital female octopus, dreamily bearing her mate's dismembered limbs. It is she who has dismembered him. One may also learn about nidicolous altricials, and silbo, the ancient whistled language of La Gomera.

On the malign side, we are offered cringe-making vignettes of American life, notably in the saga of Kingsolver's jazz tour, playing in concert with half a dozen other writers. "I take the stairs by twos, land on stage in my black lace leggings and long black no-finger gloves, and blow a kiss to the audience. I can't wait to sing 'Dock of the Bay'." A few pages on, the gruesomeness is compounded. "And really, if you were a kid, would you mind so much if your Girl Scout of a mom just once ran off to be a rock star for two weeks, as long as you got to see the pictures?" Kingsolver claims proudly that she is a slut; this carefree slacker has refined her housework to 15 hours a week. Slut? She should meet me. All the same it is clear that Kingsolver is an honourable and genuine human being, even if she does say so herself rather too often. But good behaviour does not necessarily make for good writing and it is also clear that her talents are given true expression in her fine novels rather than in this unwieldy lucky dip.

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