Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver


October saw the publication of Unsheltered, the latest novel from much loved writer Barbara Kingsolver. I also had the chance last month to attend an event at my local Waterstones to hear Barbara talk about her work which made for interesting listening, and left me keen to find out more about the world she has depicted in Unsheltered.

‘The simplest thing would be to tear it down,’ the man said. ‘The house is a shambles.’

As a fan of books which feature multiple narratives and timelines I was intrigued by the premise of Unsheltered, which follows the lives of two families living in the same house, a century and a half apart. This begins in the present day where we are introduced to Willa Knox, a writer who inherits the home at a point when her family life is thrown into turmoil. With a husband who has just lost his academic tenure, her situation becomes all the more difficult when she is left to care for her son’s child in the wake of a tragedy. This is in addition to caring for her ailing and rather cantankerous father in law, as well as a daughter back home following a heartbreak. But her hopes of maintaining a roof over all their heads prove to be dashed when architects write off her home, and there are no finances to cover it. This begins her quest to secure a grant that will enable her to repair the home, should there be something noteworthy in the buildings past. This ties her story in nicely with the second narrative, in which we are introduced to teacher Thatcher Greenwood, the previous occupant, and see the relationship he builds with the woman next door. I was interested to see how the parallel narratives develop, and to see how the events of the past could be significant to Willa and her family in the present day.

I must admit that this book took me a little longer than usual to finish, and there were points where perhaps my interest waned a little, and I wasn’t gripped by the story as I had hoped. That said, this was a well written story which explores some important themes, and I enjoyed the use of the alternating narratives. I particularly liked that the closing words of one chapter became the title of the next, which I thought was a smart way of linking the two timelines together throughout, the way they weave together, despite being centuries apart. Of the two timelines I was drawn more towards Willa’s story set in the modern day, although there was also fascinating elements to the nineteenth century plot. It is a book that feels very relevant in today’s political and social landscape, and through Willa and her family Kingsolver has presented a snapshot of life in America and the challenges that families face. This is particularly evident in Willa’s fraught relationship with her father in law, who have very different views, as she desperately tries to arrange his medical care. We also explore the relationships between the family members in times of great difficulty, and the contrast in viewpoints across the generations. I read on in interest to see how Willa and her family would adapt to their changing situation, the moments of despair, and the glimmers of hope for their future.

Unsheltered was an enjoyable and thought provoking read which provides an interesting look at a modern family and the history behind their home. Whilst it didn’t grab me quite as much as I’d hoped it would, I was intrigued by this story of a crumbling home, and the way it reflects the feeling that life may sometimes crumble around us.

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