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Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

It is six years since Barbara Kingsolver’s last novel, The Lacuna, was released. Unsheltered is a carefully crafted work, which probably helps to explain the length of time between her publications.

Unsheltered is set in the town of Vineland, New Jersey. It is an actual place, founded in 1861 when Charles Landis bought 30,000 acres of land with the aim of setting up his own ‘temperance town’.

In alternating chapters we meet two characters who reside in Vineland. Thatcher Greenwood lives there in 1871. Willa Knox resides there in 2016. They are connected by the fact that they both live in the house on the corner of SIxth and Plum. In both of their lifetimes the house is structurally unsound, leading to problems that place them under considerable stress.

Thatcher lives with his mother in law, his demanding wife and his wife’s younger sister. In a female dominated household he is under pressure to make the badly constructed house liveable. Thatcher is a science teacher at the local school. He is an admirer of Charles Darwin, but comes across intense opposition in the town when he tries to communicate the new ideas he is passionate about. He finds solace in the company of a female neighbour, a botanist, who appreciates his ideas, but this only serves to make his unhappy marriage worse.

Willa is a freelance writer. She resides in the house with her husband, his sick and dying elderly father, and her bohemian daughter. The house is falling apart, they have no money and when their son’s partner commits suicide after giving birth, Willa ends up looking after her grandchild as well. It is a fascinating snapshot at life in pre-Trump America – have things really changed in 145 years? Despite the bleak situation there is a lot of warmth and love within the family.

Kingsolver creates wonderful characters. As a biologist, she often brings nature into her stories, and in this novel we learn a lot about insects and plants through Thatcher’s neighbour. The parallel stories are cleverly intertwined and the ideas of shelter, love and the strength of the human spirit make this a very rewarding read.

Reviewer: Rachel White

Allen & Unwin, RRP $36.99


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