Reimagining Dickens on a pebbled beach

Barbara Kingsolver. Photo: supplied
Barbara Kingsolver. Photo: supplied
I was 13 when I discovered Charles Dickens for the first time. I was living in Milton, in a house with woefully inadequate insulation (water running down the walls), with a strict Glaswegian father, cold salty porridge every morning, and a preternatural belief that my ancestors were watching me from above (I couldn’t even pick my nose without thinking about my recently deceased great-grandmother). In short, I was the perfect Dickensian reader.

This was 15 years ago. I have since flown the nest and my overbearing parents, but not my love of Dickens. Last weekend, I found myself on a pebbled beach in Suffolk, unfortunately not on a beached barge with the Peggotys, but nevertheless reading a book heavily inspired by Charles Dickens — Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead.

It is an invigorated reimagining of David Copperfield, transplanted into the southern Appalachians of Virginia, with all its poverty, opioid addiction, and institutional failures. Born in a single-wide trailer to a teenage single mother, looking "like a little blue prizefighter", the red-haired Damon is disadvantaged from the very start. His fighting spirit, charm and wit help him to survive all the terrors life throws at him. With his mother in and out of rehab, Damon finds refuge with the caring Peggot family, before being thrust into the broken foster system.

And so, the familiar elements of a Dickensian tale emerge: a vulnerable mother, an absent father, a harsh stepfather, and the odds stacked against the young protagonist; while outsiders provide limited forms of assistance, some with love and others with malevolence.

Kingsolver excels where Dickens does; her characters, for the most part, are rich, multifaceted, and maddeningly human. I particularly enjoyed the sharp, wisecracking narrative of Damon — the Holden Caulfield-esque voice, full of love and understanding for his home, alongside recognition of its failures.

I loved tracing the character transformations from David Copperfield to Demon Copperhead. Dickens’ kindly Peggottys become the sprawling, generous Peggot clan, and his cruel Mr Murdstone becomes the violent "Stoner", Damon’s new stepfather. Uriah Heep, the oiliest of Dickensian villains, is transformed into a lecherous, grovelling assistant football coach named U-Haul Pyles. At a live Q&A with Kingsolver at Oxford Town Hall, I learned the main tool used in the writing of this novel was a vast Excel spreadsheet, with all the chapters, characters, and narrative arcs plotted out meticulously.

Kingsolver even improves the source material somewhat. Dickens’ Agnes — David’s second wife — is a singularly angelic and one-dimensional character. Kingsolver’s Agnes — here renamed "Angus" — is a more lively, realistic character; she is initially a sister of sorts to Damon, one with whom he can completely be himself. She farts, jokes around, holds him to account and is more than a pallid Victorian "angel in the house".

Demon Copperhead isn’t perfect. It’s awfully long, and the momentum begins to peter out in the last third of the novel. Some characters aren’t as fleshed out as they ought to be; Coach Winfield isn’t much more than his workaholism and shiny teeth, and Maggot never really feels more than a bratty Goth stereotype. Damon’s eventual romance with Angus is rather rushed and not quite believable.

Kingsolver is the consummate researcher. Her books are deeply layered, full of complexities that are at times frustrating and disconcerting. As Meredith Maran puts it, writing for the LA Times, "the book is also packed with so much information that Kingsolver could have shifted her lens from people to problems and called it journalism instead".

More than 80,000 people died of an opioid-related drug overdose in the US last year. Kingsolver presents the misery and complexities of substance abuse in an unflinching yet compassionate manner. Demon Copperhead forces us to pay attention to a community historically ridiculed, misrepresented, and misunderstood.

Charles Dickens. Photo: supplied
Charles Dickens. Photo: supplied
In an interview with The Guardian, Kingsolver admitted to wanting to write "the great Appalachian novel", a story about the prescription drugs crisis, exploitation and institutional poverty, the looting of the region’s timber, coal, tobacco and working men. Listening to Kingsolver speak, I got a sense of how deeply personal this story is for her — a Kentucky native who was once taught to be ashamed of her redneck, moonshiner community.

Demon Copperhead is just the latest in the trend of contemporary authors reinterpreting classic tales. James Joyce’s Ulysses is perhaps the most famous instance of this, but others include Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (a reinterpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre), Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein (inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), and Madeline Miller’s Circe.

"There’s nothing new under the sun," as the Good Book says, and yet these interpretations aren’t quite a cut and paste of the original texts. They are a form of fan fiction, an act of creation-within-creation, a palimpsest of narratives and authorial intent. When done well, such stories allow readers to access classic tales and themes in the context of the present day, without being put off by unfamiliar writing styles. As with Wide Sargasso Sea, they also provide reader insight into the lives of sidelined characters, upending preconceived ideas of heroes and villains, right and wrong.

When done poorly, however, these interpretations lack originality and suspense. They are entirely predictable, with present-day conceptions of diversity and representation violently shoehorned in. This trend of reinventing classics for the modern day also enables authors to update and erase the offensive aspects of the original texts. Just as Roald Dahl’s oeuvre has been revised recently to remove all traces of the author’s antisemitism and fat-phobia, the re-interpretation of classic narratives allows a new audience to access familiar tales without the unpalatable aspects of the original texts. Arguably, however, this bowdlerisation erases the capacity of literature to mirror the context and era of its origin.

Not so with Demon Copperhead. Kingsolver’s characters are not ventriloquist dummies; neither are they carbon copies of Dickens’ characters, decked out in jeans and transplanted in Virginia. They are fully fleshed characters in their own right, all the while paying homage to their Victorian counterparts. And while Demon Copperfield is as sprawling, ambitious, and complicated as David Copperfield, it has its own political light and moral indignations.

Dickens was famous for his sharp social criticism and his unflinching portrayal of the harsh realities of Victorian society. With novels such as Little Dorrit and David Copperfield, he highlighted the injustices, inequalities and abuses suffered by the poor and marginalised.

Social mores may have changed since Dickens’ time — premarital sex is not the calamity it once was, for example — but child abuse, institutional poverty and the cold machinations of state authorities are unfortunately just as relevant today.

Kingsolver’s reinterpretation of Dickens captures the urge to survive among the Oxycontin-ravaged landscape of addiction and socially determined tragedy. It is a masterpiece.

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.