Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

on NJR's Prose Blog

Cover of Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kinsolver, Faber (London) 2022, Hardcover, first edition

I was first introduced to Barbara Kingsolver by an American friend, who gave me a copy of The Bean Trees. I enjoyed it, and though I didn't regard it as exceptional, I have bought and read every novel she has published since that time (and some of her excellent non-fiction, too.)

In 1998, Kingsolver published The Poisonwood Bible, which was then and remains today one of my two favourite books of all time (the other being Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels). It's the story of a Baptist missionary who travels, and takes his family, to the Congo. Its power, its beauty and its humanity are unmatched in anything else I've ever read, with the possible exception of Fugitive Pieces. I don't think Kingsolver has quite achieved the same heights since, but everything she's written afterwords shows the same control and insight and humanity, making her an author whose books go to the top of my reading list every time she publishes. And if she hasn't quite matched the Poisonwood Bible with her writing since, I'm reminded of Joseph Heller:

LATE in life, Joseph Heller was occasionally asked why he had never written anything else as good as “Catch-22”. “Who has?” he'd reply with a self-satisfied grin.

The First Cut is the Deepest. The Economist. 8th October 2011.

(I do not believe for a moment Barbara Kingsolver would say the same; but she would be fully justfied in doing so.)

NOTE: There are very mild “spoilers” in what follows.

Demon Copperhead is Kingsolver's retelling of Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, translated in time and place to (I think) 21st-century USA, specifically centred on Lee County, Virginia. Demon (cf. David Copperfield) is an orphan who has a disturbed childhood being rotated through foster families including the McCobbs (cf. Mr McCobb, Mr Micawber), eventually ending up being taken in by an (American) football coach at the behest of his great aunt Betsy (cf. Betsy Trotwood). Coach Wickfield sees Demon's potential as a football star and our “hero” plays until a knee injury forces him to retire and manage the pain with potent opiods. He befriends the Coach's daughter, Angus (sic) (cf. Agnes Wickfield), while battling the evil Assistant Coach/gofer U-Haul (cf. Uriah Heap). Much of the focus of the book is on abuse of prescription opiod drugs, which feature heavily in Demon's life and those of his friends, including his girlfriend, Dori (cf. Dora Spenlow) and childhood hero (and former football star) Sterling “Fast Forward” Ford (cf. James Steerforth).

As in all of Kingsolver's writing, particularly since The Poisonwood Bible, the characters are richly drawn and persuasive, and it's hard for me to understand how anyone could fail to be drawn in by the writing. David Copperfield is Dicken's longest novel, at some 357,000 words. I don't know the word count for Demon Copperhead, but it might be similar, with the tome coming in at 546 pages in the Faber hardback edition I read. However many words it comprises, every one is a treat, and it was definitely the best book I read in 2022.