There is an inherent danger in creating a lead character who is trapped in boring, small-town life – the concern being the reader ends up feeling bored and downtrodden too. It’s a problem that Barbara Kingsolver creates and fails to deal with in Flight Behaviour. One of the main reason why this is a frustration is that – unlike a previous novel of Kingsolver’s, The Bean Trees – this book is long. Much too long.
This is a weighty novel about significant issues such as climate change, science, religion and media agendas. Unfortunately, it falls into the trap of using clumsy dialogue to explain these “big” topics and it’s often very difficult to engage with characters whose dialogue feels like it’s being shouted at you: “YOU, YES, YOU. ARE YOU SO DUMB?” There is a science lesson in these pages but the reality is that you don’t need to hear it told in full to grasp the concerns or understand the characters.
Flight Behaviour is also about a personal journey: that of its heroine, Dellarobia. She is likeable, frustrating, eager, confused – a complex mix that ultimately makes her engaging. But she dominates the book in such a way that storylines for other characters never get a chance to get off the ground. There is a decent cast of characters who you want Dellarobia to interact with more, too, including her best friend Dovey and Hester, her mother-in-law, whose presence seems to slip out of the novel during the middle section.
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest Flight Behaviour isn’t well-written – there are great passages, subtlety, nuance and some descriptive pearls – but overall it’s not as well crafted as many readers might hope. It cries out for pace, dynamism, more conflict and a red pen to get rid of the boring bits.