Review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

When I heard “Demon Copperhead” was inspired by “David Copperfield,” I thought — no thanks, not for me; until we meet again, Barbara Kingsolver. 

I struggled through that particular Dickens novel in my late teens — probably more me than it, to be fair; this was a time when Patterson and Clancy were my bread and butter — and the prospect of it being the basis for Kingsolver’s latest roused only a mild feeling of disinclination.

Then some bookseller pals started raving about it. Folks I trust, with similar tastes. And now, here I am, having just finished my favourite book of the year, and one of my favourite books in years.

Don’t be put off by the “David Copperfield” connection; your reading experience won’t be diminished if you’re unfamiliar with it, and I think only marginally enhanced if you recognise the allusions dotted throughout. This is a heart-wrenching contemporary coming-of-age story set in Lee County, Virginia; exactly the kind of novel I’m drawn to, honestly. It’s not as brutal as Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty” and Sofie Laguna’s “The Choke,” and maybe not as lyrically beautiful as either; but it’s just as affecting; equally powerful.  

The eponymous narrator of Kingsolver’s novel was born Damon Fields, in a dilapidated trailer, to a drug-addicted single mum. He became Demon, and nicknamed Copperfield for his red hair. From birth he was ingrained with the mentality of having zero worth, and no prospects. His life, it seemed, was destined for a singular, tragic course. And this is the path we follow, fingers crossed for a happy ending.  

Along the way, we witness the human-life consequences of the opioid epidemic; outrage at the ineptitude and exploitation of the foster care system; lament entrenched prejudices; and wonder how anyone could possibly hope to survive the circumstances Demon finds himself facing; consequences of his upbringing, bad choices, and his addictions. 

From its opening chapter, “Demon Copperhead” had me. Reading it became the sole purpose of my day. I couldn’t put it down, so immersed was I — completely, utterly — in Kingsolver’s Dickensian tale.

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