Saturday 19 August 2023

Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver

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Kingsolver’s award-winning novel takes us on a journey with young Demon, told to us by him at a distance of some years. He is born and raised in Lee County to a mother with drug addiction problems and an abusive partner. Life is never easy for him as he is taken in to a social care system which is light on care. His guardians are more interested in the cheque that comes with him than his welfare. Will he be able to find a way out of the life that he sees as set for him?

A lot of space has been given to comparisons with Dickens’ David Copperfield, the blueprint for this novel. I have not read it and do not feel it lessened my experience of Kingsolver’s novel. It is interesting to note, however, that she admits to having felt stuck in how to tell this story, and that Dickens proved to be the key to unlock it. Author of great social novels, shining a light on the suffering of the less fortunate in and around nineteenth century London, Kingsolver’s novel has the same aspiration for modern-day Appalachia. In this she is successful, the book offers us sight of what life is like for a generation of children whose parents' lives have been disrupted with devastating consequences by the opioid crisis forced upon them. Using a first-person narrative brings us close to Demon and creates compassion and understanding where previously there may only have been judgment. 

Kingsolver is open about the fact she was hoping to change the narrative of blame with this novel. The OxyContin crisis was manufactured by capitalists unconcerned with the lives they were destroying. Addiction began with legal prescriptions, following the advice of doctors. The character of June reminds Demon (and us) that this was done to him, to all of them. This isn’t a subject I was aware of before reading Demon Copperhead but there are plenty of resources for the curious, perhaps most notably Dopesick by Beth Macy. 

As Demon and his friends age they become aware of how they are viewed by the rest of the world, how they are so often the butt of the joke. Tommy, a friend made at an early care placement, is particularly distressed by this revelation and worries that people will judge him for it. Demon’s experiences highlight how much of this comes from ignorance. He finds cities dangerous and sad for their lack of nature, offering the opposing view, that city life doesn’t mean better. He notes that poor people in the cities have no way of getting food, in the country they can grow their own. 

All the characters have a difficult time one way or another, from abused women, children whose parents have been incarcerated or died, grandparents taking on the burden of care, and the countless people just trying to keep their head above water. It is a hard environment to grow up in, but it is also one where community is at the heart of life. Church groups provide free lunches for children who would otherwise go without, women make quilts for newborn babies, and everyone brings food to a wake. Desperation, addiction, and want make people behave recklessly, but there’s generosity and kindness too.

In this way the book is about so much more than the life of one man, but Demon’s story will nonetheless grip you. He is a good-hearted character trying to do his best for the people he loves, even when their behaviour is damaging to him. You rage at the injustices he experiences as child and your heart breaks as his life goes into decline after a period of success. We watch as he develops emotionally from repression of deep sadness in his youth to the anger he frequently feels. He makes mistakes as any young person does. We see how the lack of a safe environment impacts his mindset and the realisation of how others, within his own community, see him. Always we want the best for him, to find security and safety, to be loved.

This is a brilliant, challenging read. A rare book that you can feel changing you as you read it. If ever there were evidence of the power of fiction, this is it.

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