I was given Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver for my birthday in July and finally got the chance to read it on a flight to Cyprus to see a friend last weekend. I’d had it on my reading list for almost a year, having enjoyed previous novels by the author (see my blog on Reading the latest from your favourite authors). I picked it up before take-off intending to read only a couple of chapters before doing some writing, but it was so instantly gripping that I ended up reading it for the whole flight and finished it off whilst relaxing on the beach.
It is set around a falling-down house in New Jersey in two time periods, the present day and the late 1800s (one of my favourite fiction eras), and follows two families surviving precariously within its walls. The present day family is led by Willa and her Greek-American husband Iano, whom she has followed around throughout his career seeking academic tenure, as she fitted her career in journalism around his. They are still very much in love, but Willa is struggling to come to terms with their circumstances, as middle-class Americans who have strived all their lives and yet have found themselves living in a house that is literally falling down, which they can’t afford to repair. Iano has lost tenure and they find themselves looking after an extended family of Nick, Iano’s father who is vocally delighting in the rise of Trump, their grown-up daughter Tig, a climate change activist, and the newborn baby of their son Zeke, who has just lost his partner in tragic circumstances. As Willa tries to find any way to get shelter by saving their house, she stumbles across the stories of a famous resident of the street who lived there in the late 1800s.
Enter the pioneering female scientist, fabulously named Mary Treat, who was a real nineteenth-century biologist who corresponded with Darwin and lived in the community of Vineland, founded and built by property developer Charles Landis. Mary befriends her neighbour Thatcher, who is stuck in a loveless marriage next door (in the house Willa will end up living in over a century later), and as a firm supporter of Darwin shares Mary’s fascination with the natural world. They soon become firm friends.
The house that Thatcher lives in is falling down, as it is again when Willa is in residence, and as both stories unfold in alternating chapters, it builds to a climax when the house and the lives within it become unsustainable. One of the devices I loved in this beautifully written book was that each chapter is named after the last few words of the chapter before, a clever way to tie the modern and historic stories together. This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and one that is also saying something really important about the times we live in. I would highly recommend it.