“Demon Copperhead” book review: United States of agency — Rahul Singh
The spark Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead has unleashed in the global reading community comes as no surprise. Winning both the Women’s Prize and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year, it has become quite a sensation amid bibliophiles.
Its title may lure lovers of Charles Dickens’s renowned classic David Copperfield (1850), but what more has the novel done to be an international bestseller? To begin with, it has a compelling premise. In the 90s’ America, a child is born in a trailer to a teenage mother who is recuperating from drug addiction. His copper-wire hair like that of his dead father earns him the moniker Copperhead, with the first name changing from Damon to Demon. Through this uncannily christened protagonist, in what is her Dickensian tribute, Kingsolver retells the story of America, the destitution in the counties of Southern Appalachia, and the social problems plaguing it.
In a brusque, smart-alecky voice of a child, the readers follow the tragedies that pepper Demon’s growing up––with a mother who makes wrong choices––and subsequently his experiences with childcare facilities, schools, and later at workplaces. It makes for a delectable mise-en-scene that builds up to a catastrophic climax.
The novel begins: ‘First, I got myself born.’ While it may seem a widely used opening for a coming-of-age story, but the author’s choice of words and syntax shifts the focus of the reader from the ordinariness of the sentence, instead giving it a picaresque quality that becomes dominant in the following chapters. What it also does is establish Demon’s self-proclaimed agency to make or unmake his life. According to him, his birth was controlled by him and not his mother, which again is important in light of how the story turns out for her. Married to a man named Stoner, who is every bit cruel to both her and Demon, she takes to substance abuse to cope, and then eventually perishes.
From there the story follows Demon’s horrific adolescence as he moves from one foster home to another. Kingsolver has been detailed in her analysis of how often taking in children was a means of earning extra money for working class families. Kingsolver’s simplistic, playful style of writing makes the 560-page tome an engrossing read. It’s funny when Demon narrates what goes on in the back of his mind on encountering the “broke” McCobb family, or the “idiocy” of his mother dying and leaving him to his violent step-father. The author manages to balance the pervading morbid undertone–– drug addiction, self-mutilation, death––of the story well with gut-punch humour.
In an attempt to do complete justice to Dickens’s work, however, she ends up making the novel longer than it needed to be. Dickens wrote David Copperfield in a serialised form, making the bildungsroman
a big book, but the seemingly unending nature of Kingsolver’s work can sometimes push the reader to anticipate the end sooner than it actually comes.
Besides the major socio-political matters dealt with in the novel, to an Indian reader, what may particularly stand out is the reference to Dalits or untouchables made several times in the story. In the dump that Demon works temporarily, Mr Golly recounts his life experiences in India, of seeing rampant untouchability.
Demon begins to feel like one. While this is not a surprising feeling for an orphaned, destitute child to have, its needlessly repetitive mentions takes away the implications of what it means to be a Dalit in
a country like India.
From the beginning, Demon is shown aware of his agency, something that Dalits are strategically deprived of. Demon went to school and then left by choice; he fell in love with a girl above his social stratum with no structural qualms; he easily found jobs in different industries; and took to drugs and quit, all by himself. So when (older) Demon says he was used to the “no-toucher” lifestyle, it appears to be an oversimplification of a complex issue. These setbacks notwithstanding, Demon Copperhead, much like the classic it takes after, is likely to go down in America’s history as a novel that generated a wider conversation about the nation.