Flight Behaviour

Flight Behaviour (2)Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behaviour started off for me with a sense of déjà vu. There is something about the young character walking up into the forest, the sense that it may be a life changing moment, that evoked a memory of her earlier novel Prodigal Summer. There is something similar between the character of Dellarobia, a young mother of two children, and Deanna, the older wildlife biologist living in the forest, keeping an eye on the threatened coyote species.

Rereading the first line of my review of Prodigal Summer, the connection is obvious:

Animal nature, human nature, bugs and insects, forest life, their dependence and interdependence, habits good and bad and how the balance is affected when death, destruction or any kind of change is introduced; how species adapt, how human beings cope – or don’t – all of this we find in the juxtaposition of creatures assembled from the thoughtful poetic pen of Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer.

caterpillar-emergingHer latest story tracks another of nature’s creatures whose pattern of migration has changed, attracting scientists, environmentalists and believers. The events of this winter period coincide with Dellarobia’s realisation of what lies beneath her inclination to engage in behaviour likely to destroy her family. She is given the opportunity to work with the scientists and comes to understand that there is an alternative path to changing her life, one that will cause less suffering than the impulsive gesture she was intent on in the first pages.

Flight Behaviour also reminded me a little of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, they are both works of literary scientific fiction, stories that follow a particular ‘what if’ scenario. Kingsolver starts with the facts and then creates a hypothetical scenario, which science is trying to prove is related to climate change.

Just as history is sometimes more appealing to absorb through a well-researched historical novel, so too are certain scientific suppositions. And then there are the reactions of the population and how they sort themselves into like-minded categories, less about the science and more about community, faith, belonging and the short-term survival of families whose basic living may be at odds with the conservation of another of nature’s species.

Kingsolver looks at what motivates humanity to take positions against each other, the tendency to seek only those positions that support their belief system or corporate sponsor, regardless of evidence to the contrary, the challenges of the outsider and the blind acceptance of those who accept their lot without question, living in the present on account of mistakes they’ve made in the past.

coyote runningAn enjoyable novel, though slow going for me, there was something about Prodigal Summer that was urgent and compelling, while this book meandered; comparing the experience of these two books is a little like a reflection of the speed of the creatures in their midst.

Flight Behaviour has been short listed in the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013, Barbara Kingsolver was a recent winner of the prize in 2010 for her excellent novel The Lacuna, one of the first novels reviewed here on Word by Word.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist & Pulitzer Prize 2013

Womens prize logoThe long-list becomes the short-list and it looks like a strong line-up for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. Here is the short list:

Kate Atkinson Life After Life – my review here

A M Homes May We Be Forgiven

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour

Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies

Maria Semple Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Zadie Smith NW – my review here

Flight Behaviour (2) NW life after life

Here’s what Miranda Johnson, Chair of the Judges had to say:

‘The task of reducing the list of submissions from over 140 to just 20 books was always going to be daunting, but this year’s infinite variety has made the task even trickier. The list we have ended up with is, we believe, truly representative of that diversity of style, content and provenance, and contains those works which genuinely inspired the most excitement and passion amongst the judges. I don’t anticipate the job becoming easier at the next stage!’

I have managed to read two that made it through, plus others from the long list including Honour, Ignorance and The Light Between Oceans. I am currently slow-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, she won the prize in 2010 with The Lacuna, one of the first books I reviewed here. Zadie Smith is also a previous winner, her book On Beauty won in 2006.

I was sure that Atkinson and Smith would make the list, not only because the stories are engaging, but because they dare to step outside the ordinary and test the boundaries of convention, Life After Life likely to be a more popular read, but both deserving their place here.

I know many will be surprised yet delighted to see Maria Semple’s Where’s You Go Bernadette on the list and of course the inevitable Hilary Mantel, no surprise there. Will anyone be able to knock her off her current perch I wonder?

The winner will be announced at a ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 5 June.

The Guardian – Women’s prize for fiction reveals ‘staggeringly strong’ shortlist

Pulitzer Prizepulitzer

Amid the terrible news that saddened and horrified us all in Boston yesterday, a day that should have been cause for calm celebration, the annual Pulitzer Prizes for 2013 were quietly announced.

The Snow Child was one of the three finalists for the fiction prize, the winner was The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, a timely journey in the heart of North Korea.

It was good to see a non-fiction title I enjoyed and recommended last year Tom Reiss’s Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo win the biography prize. My review here.

Prodigal Summer

Animal nature, human nature, bugs and insects, forest life, their dependence and interdependence, habits good and bad and how the balance is affected when death, destruction or any kind of change is introduced; how species adapt, how human beings cope – or don’t – all of this we find in the juxtaposition of creatures assembled from the thoughtful poetic pen of Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer as she weaves three stories variously referred to in three alternating chapter titles, Predators, Moth Love and Old Chestnuts.

It may be due to the sound of the cicadas screeching outside while I read, or the richness of Kingsolver’s prose, but this book exudes the heat of summer and its associated sensations. It places you deep in the forest on the mountainside, heightening all the senses and bringing attention to every sound and movement, witness to the presence of all manner of wildlife pulsing just beyond what the eye can see.

Predators – Essentially the story revolves around three female characters, Deanna, the wildlife biologist living in a forest cabin working as her kind of conservationist, destabilised by the presence of a young hunter in her territory and her preoccupation with guarding a young coyote family that have returned to the forest wilderness.

She shares her environment with a snake, another predator and a metaphor for man, the snake is natural to the habitat and will expose Deanna for what she really is – not just a qualified biologist tending nature, keeping man and his hunting instinct out – but a woman with a suppressed but natural maternal instinct, depicted by her attachment to a family of chickadees. When the fledglings fall prematurely out of the nest, she puts them back, justifying her intervention in nature’s way, trying to alter the otherwise harsh survival odds nature has given the little birds, more in their favour. She succeeds in keeping them all alive, only to discover on her return from a walk, four telling bulges in the coil of the sleeping black serpent.

When the snake finally leaves she feels something shift inside her body – relief, it felt like, enormous and settled, like a pile of stones on a steep slope suddenly shifting and tumbling slightly into the angle of repose.

Moth Love by Nusio21

Moth Love – Lusa is a bug scientist, now local farmer’s wife, though still perceived as an outsider with her mixed cultural background and continued use of her foreign sounding maiden name. She is trying to adapt to her new role and changed circumstances while staying true to her beliefs and recognising her not so traditional, but well-founded knowledge and approach to farming.

In the summer after … Lusa discovered lawn-mower therapy. The engine’s vibrations roaring through her body and its thunderous noise in her ears seemed to bully all human language from her head, chasing away the complexities of regret and recrimination. It was a blessing to ride over the grass for an hour or two as a speechless thing, floating through a universe of vibratory sensation. By accident, she had found her way to the mind-set of an insect.


Old Chestnuts – The third character(s) are the elderly and persistent Nannie Rawley and her equally aged, cantankerous, fixed in his ideas neighbour, the widower Garnett. They trade insults and unappreciated advice across their boundaries, but can’t seem to keep away from each other despite their polar opposite views.

Halal Goat

Not that it detracted from the reading of the book, but I did ponder the similarity in conviction of the three female characters, it is not clear whether or not they know each other for much of the book, but with such similar attitudes in their various fields, in a real community I would have expected them to have discovered each other and had some kind of interaction or at least knowledge of each other from the beginning. Sometimes this is a deliberate tactic by the writer to keep the connections between people vague until the end, to shape some kind of revelation. It just seemed like a bit of a coincidence that three such characters living in a traditional farming community had such little awareness of each other.

As much a study of nature, as a story of that which passes between these characters during this one summer, Prodigal Summer is indulgence of the satisfying, learned kind; it is compelling reading and a lesson in the wonder, beauty and balance of nature and humanity.

City of Love

The immense and almighty Notre Dame de Paris

I have been busy retracing the many steps of the monuments of Paris these past few days, so not much time for reading, although I did manage to finish Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent ‘Prodigal Summer’ which I will write more of soon and following on from this glorious visit to Paris, I am now immersed in Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ keeping me in Paris for a few more days yet, albeit the 1920’s.

If you need any more proof that Paris is indeed the city of love, check out this superb photo I took of that beautiful feminine monument ‘La Tour Eiffel’, is that not a beautiful heart shining down on the population?

We took an evening stroll up to the Sacre Cœur cathedral, two minutes from where we were staying.  In fact I was babysitting that evening while friends from New Zealand were at a Bruce Springsteen concert, I have to say it was the best night looking after 3 children ever, practicing french phrases during dinner and an impressive after dinner promenade to one of the city’s marvels.

Here is a detail from one of the tower walls of L’Arc de Triomphe. I love the dramatic detail of the sculptures and wall friezes.

Despite the beautiful blue skies you see, it did indeed rain every day I was in Paris, it reminded me a little of New Zealand, that rain, sun, rain, sun, beautiful green trees.

However, something that only Paris can offer, her history of monarchs, uprisings, revolutions and battles and 60,000 square metres of art works in one museum alone and then there’s the people watching, all chairs facing the street for the best view, it’s amazing what you observe and overhear during the downing of une noisette (small coffee with a dash of milk).

Now back in Aix-en-Provence where the temperatures are consistently hot and as I got out of the car, I am greeted by the incessant noise of the cicadas, who have long announced the debut of summer and witnessed the emergence of one of these gigantic insects from its chrysalis on the wall right next to me, the moment before he too joined that eternal cacophony of sound reminiscent of the season.


Au revoir Paris, je reviens bientôt.