I was absolutely certain I was going to hate Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. David Copperfield is very probably my least favourite novel of all time (I loathe Dickens, and it’s peak Dickens: idealised hero, massive misogyny, infuriating caricatures, stupidly large cast, incredible self-congratulatory ‘tackling’ of social issues, patronising moralism about poverty). Plus, although I think Kingsolver has written some incredible books (Flight Behaviour, Prodigal Summer) she does have a tendency to preach. This seemed like the worst combination possible, and I only picked this novel up in a fit of morbid curiosity.
Well, I had to think again, because Kingsolver-does-Dickens actually WORKS. How?
First, because of Demon. Every review of this novel has commented on its incredible narrative voice, and although I’m always a little wary of voice-led novels, which can so easily become gimmicky, this one is just fantastic. David C is reimagined here as a boy born to an addict mother in southern Appalachia, who grows up between a series of foster families and is ultimately drawn into drugs himself – there is a particular focus on the opioid crisis, as Kingsolver hammers home the exploitation of poor rural American communities by pharmaceutical companies. Demon is an irresistible narrator, and it’s he who pulls us through this book even when it DOES become too long and IS a bit preachy. On a line-by-line level, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kingsolver write better prose, and she’s no slouch normally. I loved the way she followed the slight disconnection of Demon’s thoughts, as he returns to familiar refrains and picks up on fragments of words, looping through his own mind. ‘It was a Wednesday this all happened, which supposedly is the bad one. Full of woe etc.’ He’s also frequently very funny: ‘They stopped whooping and yelled at me that my friends were up ahead. Thanks, guys. I thought they might have raptured.’
Second, although Kingsolver does become too didactic at times – we’re told on at least four occasions about how awful it is that Americans stereotype rednecks and don’t care about rural poverty – this book does dig deep into questions of place and class that feel relatively fresh to me. It reminded me of Monica Potts’s memoir of growing up in rural Arkansas, The Forgotten Girls, which examines why life expectancy has declined so quickly for the least educated white Americans, who often live in rural areas. The economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute these early deaths to drug overdoses, suicides and alcoholism, calling them ‘deaths of despair’. The emotional realities of living in such a community are completely evoked by Demon Copperhead. The book occasionally strays a little too close to misery porn for my tastes, but these moments are rare; Kingsolver is adept at picking herself up again and rendering the complexities of Demon’s world, rather than allowing him and his neighbours to collapse into a pitiful mass.
Demon Copperhead also brilliantly reinvents Dickens’ painfully stereotyped secondary cast. I honestly think it has helped me understand what Dickens was trying to do with characters like the Micawbers and Uriah Heep, whom I can’t think about without wincing. Kingsolver’s cast retains the essence of Dickens’s but is so much more real and complicated. I particularly loved what she does with the female characters: Dori (Dora), Angus (Agnes) and Emmy (Little Em’ly – cannot type that without cringing). However, she also does a beautiful job on Fast Forward (Steerforth), capturing his dangerous magnetism, and Tommy Traddles, whom she manages to render as essentially good without making him simply a two-dimensional moral exemplar – such a difficult thing for a writer to pull off. The problems with Demon Copperhead’s cast are the fault of David Copperfield – there are just too many characters, and if I were Kingsolver, I’d have been tempted to cut tertiary figures such as Mouse. This adds to the sense that the book is just too long and self-indulgent in places, as well.
Nevertheless, what Kingsolver has managed to do here is to recreate the remarkable, immersive narrative pull of the best of nineteenth-century fiction. This isn’t my favourite novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist or longlist, but it would be a worthy winner.
I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary