*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

by
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
(978-0-571-37646-9)
Church Times Bookshop £18

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

 

Church Times/RSCM: 

Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE

 

Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available

 

Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available

 

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Church Times/Canterbury Press:

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

Early bird tickets available

 

 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)