Demon’s story begins with his traumatic birth to a single mother in a single-wide trailer, looking ‘like a little blue prizefighter.’ For the life ahead of him he would need all of that fighting spirit, along with buckets of charm, a quick wit, and some unexpected talents, legal and otherwise.
In the southern Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, poverty isn’t an idea, it’s as natural as the grass grows. For a generation growing up in this world, at the heart of the modern opioid crisis, addiction isn’t an abstraction, it’s neighbours, parents, and friends. ‘Family’ could mean love, or reluctant foster care. For Demon, born on the wrong side of luck, the affection and safety he craves is as remote as the ocean he dreams of seeing one day. The wonder is in how far he’s willing to travel to try and get there.
Whilst this is a shoe-in for all the literary prizes of the year – there is no doubting its profundity and energy, its anger and its literary mastery – I found it an incredibly challenging read, piling unrelenting misery upon misery on young Demon’s shoulders, robbing him of every joy or success or moment of peace, with only the incredible power of the narrative voice to stave off the bleakness.
What I Liked
- Demon’s narrative voice which felt vibrant, authetic and wholly credible;
- The passion with which the novel described the world and landscape of the Appalachian Mountains
- The earnestness of the novel’s anger at the opiod addictions afflicting American youth
What Could Have Been Different
- The happy ending and romance with Angus felt… unnecessary and a little forced
This is my first Kingsolver novel, although I was vaguely aware of The Poisonwood Bible. And I have to be honest, had it not been on the Women’s Prize shortlist, I may not have immediately picked this one up either. The blurb somehow didn’t appeal: it felt too American – it was whole heartedly and unapologetically American; too self-consciously literary – it is, after all, a reimagining of Dickens’ David Copperfield; too worthy – and it is worthy, and urgent, shining a spotlight on the horrors of America’s opiod addiction epidemic.
It was also incredibly compelling and powerful, replete with gorgeous descriptions of the place and setting in Lee County in the Appalachian Mountains, a world of rural poverty. And, unlike Holden Caulfield who shies away from “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”: we learn that
First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it.
And from the moment of birth onwards, the novel charts young Demon’s formative years, in detail and in depth. We follow, in good Bildungsroman fashion, Damon managing his mother’s alcoholism, dependence on drugs, inappropriate relationships with men and marraige to the abusive and violent Stoner, and eventually her death; we follow Demon through the care system shuttling from carers who see young boys as nothing more than cheap labour or a get-rich-quick scam; we follow him through a brief success on the school football field which leads to his own spiral of drug abuse; we see him love for the first time and lose her to drugs; and we see Demon circling the same abyss that did for his mother.
It was … bleak as a read.
And for me, perhaps because I have serious issues with the subject matter, it was a hard book to enjoy however much I appreciated the craft and the power.
Because it is immensely well crafted as a novel – as you’d expect in a novel echoing the narrative structure of a Dickens novel. Characters return and recur, their circles overlapping in unexpected – often tragic ways. The Peggots, the McCobb family, Fast Forward, U-Haul all form interlocking cogs and gears in the narrative, steering Demon and each other towards – for wont of less Christian language – salvation or destruction.
And Demon is not without positive guidance in his life: the Peggots were almost saintly in the way they all but adopted Demon; Aunt June who returns to Lee County as a nurse is a beacon; Tommy Waddell, whom he meets on Creaky’s farm, was the most uncomplicatedly sweet and gentle character; Mr Armstrong and Miss Annie were glorious characters. And Angus, sweet Angus, whom Demon mistook for a boy the first time they met, was a wonderfully vivid, strong character – daughter of Coach Winfield, who fostered Demon at the behest of his paternal grandmother, she had an independence and forthright attitude in her style and her language and her ambition. Her belief that life was to be seized and enjoyed, both its ups and downs, was pretty much the motto of the novel:
Generally speaking, Angus could be a giant ass-pain as far as looking on the bright side. “Demon,” she was always saying, “life is a wild, impetuous ride. There could be good shit up ahead, don’t rule it out.” Which I mostly did, rule it out.
And the ride of Demon’s life is horrific. His flight from the McCobb’s and attempts to hitchhike; his seduction by the insidious Fast Forward which resulted in the appalling fall of Aunt June’s daughter, Emmy; the awful climax at the Devil’s Bathtub… but none surpass the horrors of Dori, Demon’s first love who, after caring for her invalid father for so long, introduces Demon to a round of new drugs and addictions. We see her palpably and viscerally circling the drain and bringing Demon down with her… and I found her death deeply moving – however dangerous and damaging she had been to Demon, she had been a deeply damaged and vulnerable character herself and her death did wring a tear from me.
The power of the novel lies in Demon’s narrative voice – it is that which saves it from being too bleak or too sentimental, too indulgent or too mired in the stereotypes of southern poverty. Authentic, biting, darkly wry, his voice is genuinely one of the standout voices of my reading over the last few years. It is through that voice that Kingsolver introduces the much needed humour that keeps the novel alive for me.As Angus says to Demon,
the magic went away again after you moved out. The magic was all you, Demon.
One thing that did jar for me was the ending – and to an extent Kingsolver was tied by her source material – but the sudden blossoming of love between Demon and Angus felt terribly forced and, worse, just unnecessary: her support for Demon would have meant as much, if not more, for it being born of true friendship or fraternal feelings. Somehow, to have reduced it to a romantic support almost felt that it cheapened things.
Will this win the Women’s Prize as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Yes probably. Does it deserve those accolades? Without doubt. Will I read another Kingsolver? Perhaps, once I have recovered from this one.
Barbara Kingsolver (born April 8, 1955) is a Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist, essayist and poet. She was raised in rural Kentucky and lived briefly in the Congo in her early childhood. Kingsolver earned degrees in biology at DePauw University and the University of Arizona and worked as a freelance writer before she began writing novels. Her widely known works include The Poisonwood Bible, the tale of a missionary family in the Congo, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a non-fiction account of her family’s attempts to eat locally.
Her work often focuses on topics such as social justice, biodiversity and the interaction between humans and their communities and environments.
Plot / Pace:
18th October 2022