THE PLOT: ‘Demon Copperhead’ by Barbara Kingsolver is a retelling of Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’ but set in 90’s rural America. In West Virginia, Demon is a young boy born to an addict mother and a deceased father. Living in a trailer, he comes from a tight knit community of “hillbillies” and “rednecks” who he relies on. But when his mother gets a new boyfriend, Demon’s life falls apart and the whole community is threatened by the sudden prevalence of prescription opioids. The up’s and down’s of Demon’s life mirror the community and it seems like he is fated to follow his mother’s footsteps into poverty and addiction.
RATING: At 546 pages, this book is an epic tale following Demon’s life journey. It’s a love song to rural Virginia and a condemnation of the 90’s opioid crisis, explaining the history of political decisions that have led to cyclical rural poverty in the U.S.. Some bloggers have criticized this book for being slow paced, which I understand because it feels like Demon’s story is being told in real time and it’s hard to keep track of the huge cast list. However, once I settled into the rhythm, I enjoyed that I was able to fully immerse myself in the main character’s world. Released in late 2022, I’m not surprised that this book has just won a Pulitzer Prize and is currently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize. I’d echo this book’s popularity with critics and would give it four stars because of the social justice themes, strong voice and beautiful setting.
GOOD BITS: The standout aspect of this book is undoubtedly the voice. Told in first person, past tense, the main character tells their story directly to the reader in an evocative way that feels completely original. You get to know the main character’s thoughts and feelings intimately and you feel like he is a sensitive, caring boy who has terrible luck due to being born into poverty. This fed into themes that really resonated with me, such as explanation and reclamation of terms ‘hillbilly’ and ‘redneck’; how poverty fuels addiction (and vice versa), and the social care system. Unsurprisingly my favourite characters were Tommy and June, who encapsulated the possibilities to break out of negative circumstances.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: It took me c.100 pages to properly get into this book. The voice is amazing but the vernacular and multiple nicknames for each character makes it a slow read and I often found myself flipping back to understand what was happening. This was a big problem towards the end as the climax fell flat because I couldn’t remember a crucial character. This is a key problem with the book because the huge cast list meant this character is very much sidelined initially and I think they needed to have more of a ‘moment’ at the beginning. In summary with no spoilers, the whole plot felt unbalanced because the reader needed more set up for this character.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck and the TV show ‘Dopesick’. I adore Kingsolver’s books (that I’ve already read) but, if I’m honest, this is probably my least favourite due to the length / slow pace / meandering plot. However, I would recommend reading this on a summer holiday surrounded by nature, when you have plenty of time to slowly dive into this world and ruminate on the themes.
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