Tuesday 18 October 2022


Book review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

I love a retelling; whether it's a feminist take on ancient Greek myths or a contemporary adaptation of a classic fairy tale. So when I heard that Demon Copperhead is a modern-day version of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, my interest was immediately piqued. My only experience with Dickens retellings is A Christmas Carol (of which The Muppet Christmas Carol is without a doubt the superior version), which is a wildly different story although some of the same themes emerge: inequity, poverty, and resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship. 

Damon Fields, also known as Demon Copperhead because of his rusty hair, is born at the tail end of the 1980s to a junkie mother in a trailer in Lee County, Virginia. He has a rough start in life but it's nothing compared to what's ahead of him. After a reasonably quiet early childhood, only having to deal with his mother's addictions, an abusive stepfather comes into the picture and it's the beginning of a rollercoaster ride in the foster care system. 

He's moved from home to home, being neglected, used, and forced to work much more than his fair share from too early an age. He meets a range of dubious characters that make up the most seedy side of Lee County, and even those that seem caring at first often have a hidden agenda. The novel asks the question: with drugs, death, and deprivation all around him, is it possible for Demon to defy the odds and break out of the cycle of addiction? 

I thought I'd read David Copperfield, but while reading this retelling – which shifts the story from Victorian England to the American South – I didn't recognise the modern takes on classic characters, nor did the plot progression feel familiar. And honestly, I think that was probably for the best. As it meant less focusing on trying to remember how the story would end, or spending time comparing author Barbara Kingsolver's characters to those of Charles Dickens, and instead getting to experience it all for the very first time. 

And what a ride it was. I am not American, and I'll fully admit I had no idea that the opioid epidemic was so huge and took place so recent. It's absolutely shocking and horrifying. Seeing the epidemic develop through the eyes of a child hits even harder. There was no chance for Demon to avoid the inevitable, despite his best efforts. What was especially difficult to read was how some of those around him, who had a slightly better start in life and a stronger support system, still fell victim to abuse and addiction. No one was safe or strong enough to defy the odds. 

Now, I have never been to Lee County and I do not know the Appalachian at all. Maybe there really is no escaping. But I did feel at times that when the story couldn't possibly get any worse, it did – just to make a point. This almost became unrealistic. I fully understand that Kingsolver is lifting the curtain on widespread substance abuse and inequity. Showing it's near impossible for those born amidst this to avoid falling into the same patterns as those around them, but surely *someone* could've caught a break along the way? But they didn't. 

I'm not saying the book should have been more light-hearted or happily-ever-after, as that's clearly at odds with the difficult subjects at the heart of the story. However, it did start to feel extremely one-sided, not showing the full spectrum of life in Lee County. Maybe this is truly what it's like, but in novel form it felt like too much at times – especially given its length (560 pages can pack an awful lot of death and despair).

That said, while Demon Copperhead is difficult to read due to immense hardships of what the characters go through, it's also hugely gripping. Demon's voice is compelling, regardless of his state of mind, and as a reader you cannot help but root for him to catch a break in life, even if it seems in vain. And while most people around him were absolutely terribly human beings, there are a few gems hidden within the pages. The lights within the darkness, if you were. They are the people that bring hope, not enough in my honest opinion, but they were there; just a sprinkling of them.    

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is not an easy read, but it's an incredibly important one. Shedding much-needed light on a terrible crisis that is continuing to sweep across America to this day – with those in desperate need of help not getting it. Witnessing it all through the eyes of one young person makes an abstract concept such as "opioid epidemic" more realistic and hits so much harder. I hope stories like these help bring these issues more to the forefront of those that can actually make a difference in the US. We need more compassion, care, and support. Especially for real-life Demons. 

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is published today by Faber & Faber and you can now buy a copy from your favourite book shop!

Disclaimer: This book was gifted to me by the publisher, but this has not impacted this honest review.

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