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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

25 November 2022

John Pridmore is taken by a novel with some harrowing tales

BARBARA KINGSOLVER is among the great storytellers of our time. Much of her work explores the afflictions of the hard-done-by, not least the misery of the children of dysfunctional families. Her best-known novel, The Poisonwood Bible, is, among much else, a demand that we take to heart what children born on religion’s lunatic fringe have to suffer.

Now, in a new novel of immense power, she returns to the dark places of childhood and adolescence, mapping a territory that many have experienced but few dare recall.

Demon Copperhead is a Bildungsroman: a narrative of an individual’s formation. Its literary predecessors include Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and, most famously, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. It is the latter text that provides the template for Kingsolver’s novel. To reimagine David Copperfield plausibly requires both total immersion in the work that Dickens himself called his “favourite child”, and a creative gift equal to his own. Has Kingsolver matched Dickens’s achievement? Time and the critics will tell, but one dares to think that perhaps she has.

Kingsolver’s protagonist is a boy born to a teenage single mother in “a single-wide trailer” somewhere far from anywhere in Kentucky. His given name is Damon, and his surname Fields, but he soon becomes “Demon”, because of his fiery temperament, and “Copperhead”, thanks to his fiery hair. (Kingsolver likes playing games with Dickens’s nomenclature. The vicious Mr Murdstone becomes “Stoner”; the charming but so-dangerous-to-know Steerforth is renamed “Fast Forward”; the savage headmaster Mr Creakle is nicknamed “Creaky” — and so on.)

Much that unfolds across the 500 pages of this cataract of a novel makes for harrowing reading: for example, in Demon’s recollections of the funeral of his mother and stillborn brother, or in his unsparing testimony to the devastation that drugs — not least legal opiates — can do to the mind and body.

Rather than any spoiler revealing the fate of Copperhead, I offer a tiny contribution to the literary afterlife of David Copperfield, a legacy gloriously enriched by this book. Surely Uriah Heep — or U-Haul Pyles, as Kingsolver dubs him — is the forefather of Gollum.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

Demon Copperhead
Barbara Kingsolver
Faber & Faber £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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