Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver - review by Kathy O’Shaughnessy

Kathy O’Shaughnessy

Dickens in the Trailer Park

Demon Copperhead

By

Faber & Faber 548pp £20
 

Barbara Kingsolver grapples with testing subjects. In The Lacuna she wrote about revolutionary Mexico and Cold War America. In The Poisonwood Bible she showed a Christian missionary getting it hilariously, tragically wrong in the Congo. Her latest novel tackles poverty and drugs in hillbilly America. She’s also doing something new: rewriting David Copperfield.

The narrator hero is a young boy known as Demon (his real name is Damon), who lives with his ex-junkie single mother in a trailer in Virginia. The solace in his life is the family next door, the Peggots. Mrs Peggot has a heart of gold, taking in all the strays from her own extended family, including her grandson, Maggot, who is Demon’s best friend. Here Demon is given meals, treats and even clothes.

But then Demon’s mother gets married. Taking the place of Dickens’s Mr Murdstone is Stoner, with ripped abs, a shaved head and veins that protrude when he’s violent (which is often). A reign of terror begins for mother and child, with Demon no longer allowed to go to the Peggots. He starts getting bullied and beaten in the trailer and his mother overdoses. The social services become involved. Where can Demon live? He can’t stay with the Peggots, as Stoner has lied to the social services, implying that they molested Demon. But Demon’s face and body show evidence of Stoner’s violence. So Demon goes to his first foster home.

The Copperfield skeleton provides a powerful narrative structure and Kingsolver makes the most of it. Just as she provided the reader with a visceral sense of the Congo jungle in The Poisonwood Bible, she describes ten-year-old Demon’s arrival at his foster home with unsettling plausibility. His two caseworkers,

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