Without Shelter, Can We Stand in Daylight?

Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered examines familial breakdown in tandem with that of a nation, flipping between present day and 19th century America

Review by Izzy Ashton

If you were to take a look at most recent news headlines about America, you’d be hard pushed to find something positive to cling onto. Excepting the recent confirmation of more women and people of colour to the Senate than ever before, President Trump still looms large in the White House, an ominous character whose childlike determination to get what he wants threatens the livelihoods of millions of American people every single day.

But, in times of turmoil, we can turn to fiction to try and find an explanation, an understanding of the world we’re living in. The America that Barbara Kingsolver writes about in her latest book, ‘Unsheltered’, is one that we both recognise and, rather guiltily, often choose to ignore. It’s an America where families struggle to support one another; people’s houses are crumbling around them, and their world imploding.

Kingsolver is an author who sets out to answer uncomfortable questions. ‘Unsheltered’, her ninth novel, documents a US breakdown alongside a familial one, exploring a country and its problems through a domestic lens.

She writes of the loss of homes, both actual and national as we meet Willa Knox and her family in the 21st century. Willa is struggling to stop her family home, their shelter, coming apart at the seams. She is continually torn every which way, trying to care for her family including her son Zeke’s new baby after his girlfriend commits suicide, her fantastically strong willed daughter Tig and steady boyfriend Jorge, and her gorgeous academic husband Iano, who attracts more than the usual levels of attention from his students. Not to mention Iano’s ageing and near to incapacitated Greek immigrant father Nick, affectionately known as Papu to the family.

To further understand this loss of shelter and its consequences for the individual, Kingsolver decided that it would be “useful to go back to some other moment in history when people felt a similar absolute disorientation in the universe”. And so the story flips between Willa’s family in the present day and that of Thatcher Greenwood in the 19th century.

As Willa attempts to support her family, she turns to examine the history of the family who lived in the neighbourhood before her, that of the schoolteacher Thatcher and his new wife as well as his neighbour, the brilliant scientist Mary Treat, in whom Thatcher as well as Willa two centuries later, finds a kindred spirit.

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The novel documents the parallels of a family’s troubles several centuries apart. The dynamics, their fears and relationships mirror one another, from era to era. For Thatcher and Willa, they experience a push pull between independence and community, between freedom and shelter, with a strong desire and fundamental need for both.

The chapters flip between the different centuries – pleasingly each chapter is named after the last one or two words of the chapter before – using the past as a reflective tool to make sense of a nonsensical present. While Thatcher and Mary read the teachings of Charles Darwin, Willa and Tig discuss the America they live in and each duo begins to unpick the mysteries of the world, as they know it. They live in societies that are wildly different but all are coming to terms with new truths, new realities.

For me, maybe because she is a contemporary in terms of age, Tig becomes the voice of reason, the voice of reality underlying the entire novel, offering a clear(er) perspective on the America that Willa is losing recognition of. Tig’s optimism is the beacon of hope at the heart of the novel. As Willa remarks, “‘Without a roof over your head, it kind of feels like you might die’”, Tig responds “‘Yeah, but you might not. For sure you won’t find your way out of the mess if you keep picking up bricks and stuffing them in your pockets. What you have to do is look for blue sky.’”

Mary, centuries earlier, mirrors Tig’s optimism; their characters see the world in a similar way. They place no attachment on material objects, instead engaging with the world from a different perspective. As Tig places emphasis on searching for that scrap of blue sky, Willa is similarly comforted by a piece of paper she finds on which Mary had written “Unsheltered, I live in daylight. And like the wandering bird I rest in thee.”

Kingsolver also explores what happens when members of the same family disagree in their view of the world and so begin to look outside the family for gratification and assurance. Papu, the aged patriarch of the family believes strongly in the good that can come from a Trump-like figure in power. Willa finds his views impossible to comprehend or to even indulge. It is Tig, the millennial, who encourages Willa to recognise that each of them, each generation, lives in different versions of the same country. As Tig says to her mother, “Everybody your age is, like, crouching inside this box made out of what they already believe. You think it’s a fallout shelter or something but it’s a piece of shit box, Mom.”

Thatcher’s familial problems stem predominantly from the idea of class and of what his wife and her family feel they need materialistically to be happy. Thatcher when speaking to Mr. Carruth, the newspaper editor says of his family, “They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.” To please his wife, Thatcher gives her a pair of riding boots and introduces her to a smarter, wealthier colleague of his, who owns horses she soon learns to ride. Thatcher provides his wife with the means to step up into the society she so longs for while he watches, seemingly quite relieved, from afar.

Unsheltered contains many a spooling narrative thread, too many in fact to try and commit entirely to a review. At the heart of the novel however, as the title alludes to, is an emphasis on the importance of shelter to each and every character. And, while this starts out as a very physical depiction of the word, by the end it seems as though the characters reach their own conclusions about whether shelter can also be found on a more metaphorical level.

Kingsolver’s novel is an artfully woven book about poverty, parallel lives, familial relationships, acceptance, love, fear and loss. But, most importantly, it is about coming to terms with your own idea of shelter, however that might take shape. riddle_stop 2


“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins, October 2018

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