Sunday, February 05, 2023

Fiction Review: Demon Copperhead

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver was my first audio book of 2023, and I can already tell that it will be one of my top reads of the year! I'm a huge Kingsolver fan, and her early novels The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees have permanent spots in my mental Best Books of All Time list. I've enjoyed her more recent novels, as well, but now she has published another book on a par with those early hits. In Demon Copperhead, she uses the inspiration and basic outline of the classic novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens to write an epic and original coming-of-age novel set in modern-day Appalachia.

Young Damon is nicknamed Demon from a young age, as nicknames are common in the hills and hollers of his home in southwestern Virginia. He narrates this story of his life (at least the young years), beginning at the beginning, when he was born in a single-wide trailer to an addicted young single mother. His father, whose green eyes, red hair, and Copperhead moniker he inherited, died before he was born at a local waterfall area called Devil's Bathtub, leaving poor Demon fatherless and afraid of bathtubs. Mrs. Peggot, the next-door neighbor, was there for Demon's birth and was an important part of his life afterward, as a surrogate grandmother. She was also raising her grandson, Maggot (aka Matt Peggot), who was Demon's best friend, since his own mother was in prison. Demon and Maggot's best years of their youth were spent together running through the woods behind their homes and playing superheroes. Demon not only liked to play superheros, but he loved to draw them--and make up his own--from a young age. As the boys grow up, though, Demon faces a nonstop parade of calamities and challenges, from an abusive stepfather to the wild vagaries of the foster care system and worse. But he tells his story with wit and wisdom.

That is only the very tip of the iceberg of Demon's remarkable story. He endures horrifying and heartbreaking trials as he grows from a child into a teenager and eventually a young man. But, this is not only the story of this one remarkable and remarkably unlucky boy. It's also the story of a whole population, as Kingsolver delves into the real-life issues in Appalachia and America's poor, rural communities, including the foster care system, addiction (particularly opoid addiction), the lack of jobs, and more. You might expect this to be a depressing novel, but it's not. Yes, sometimes, the turns that Demon's young life takes are heartbreaking, but his narrative is also hilarious. Kingsolver is an extremely talented storyteller, and this is one of her best tales, told in a wholly unique voice I came to adore:

"First I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they've always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let's just say out of it.

On any other day, they'd have seen her outside on the deck of her trailer home, good neighbors taking notice, pestering the tit of trouble as they will. All through the dog-breath air of late summer and fall, cast an eye up the mountain and there she'd be, little bleach-blonde smoking her Pall Malls, hanging on that railing like she's captain of her ship up there, and now might be the hour it's going down. This is an eighteen-year-old girl we're discussing, all on her own and as pregnant as it gets. The day she failed to show, it fell to Nance Peggot to go bang on the door, barge inside, and find her passed out on the bathroom floor with her junk all over the place and me already coming out. A slick fish-colored hostage picking up grit from the vinyl tile, worming and shoving around because I'm still inside the sack that babies float in, pre-real-life."

The colorful language that Demon uses--and especially the hilarious similes and metaphors--make every page of this book an absolute delight to read. Demon is a wonderful character, but he is also surrounded by fully fleshed-out, real-feeling people, both good and bad.

As I said, Kingsolver has based her modern-day story on the basic framework of David Copperfield, which I read a few years ago for Big Book Summer, but you do not need to be familiar with that classic to enjoy this new novel. It absolutely stands on its own. However, if you have read David Copperfield, you are in for an extra helping of pleasure. The parallels between the stories and between the character names are like Easter eggs for readers who've also enjoyed that classic. I listened to Demon Copperhead on audio, and the narrator, Charlie Thurston, fully inhabits Demon's character and voice (listen to a sample). It's a long book that took me almost all of January to finish listening to it, but I was still sorry when it ended because I hated to leave Demon and his friends. This is a spectacular, epic story told by a consummate storyteller. Just reading those first paragraphs that I excerpted up above makes me want to start back at the beginning and read it all again.

560 pages, Harper


This book fits in the following 2023 Reading Challenges:


Literary Escapes Challenge - Virginia


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Listen to a sample of the outstanding audiobook here and/or download it from Audible.


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  1. My favorite Kingsolver novels are the early ones but I should give some of her later ones a try as well.

    1. Same here, though I really enjoyed her last novel before this one, Unsheltered - it's historical fiction that brings together the past and present - engrossing and clever - I think you'd like it:

  2. I was wild about this book, too. I had only the most basic memory of David Copperfield but found quite a few similarities just with a modern update. Wow! Wonderful review.

    1. Same! I'll go check out your review, too.