2023 Political Fiction Book prize finalist

Demon Copperhead

Barbara Kingsolver

Published by: Faber

Demon Copperhead is a once-in-a-generation novel that breaks and mends your heart in the way only the best fiction can.

Demon’s story begins with his traumatic birth to a single mother in a single-wide trailer, looking ‘like a little blue prizefighter.’ For the life ahead of him he would need all of that fighting spirit, along with buckets of charm, a quick wit, and some unexpected talents, legal and otherwise.

In the southern Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, poverty isn’t an idea, it’s as natural as the grass grows. For a generation growing up in this world, at the heart of the modern opioid crisis, addiction isn’t an abstraction, it’s neighbours, parents, and friends. ‘Family’ could mean love, or reluctant foster care. For Demon, born on the wrong side of luck, the affection and safety he craves is as remote as the ocean he dreams of seeing one day. The wonder is in how far he’s willing to travel to try and get there.

Suffused with truth, anger and compassion, Demon Copperhead is an epic tale of love, loss and everything in between.

This audacious rewriting of David Copperfield novel charms from its Dickensian opening line: ‘First, I got myself born’. Our hero is Demon Copperhead, son of a teenage drug addict and, like Copperfield, an already dead father. The novel oscillates between the twin motors of a self-determination which should come easily to the quicksilver Demon, and the powerlessness that comes from being stuck in someone else’s narrative. Addiction is a less obvious Dickensian topic, but Kingsolver ingeniously uses it to sharpen and make concrete the paralysing and stupefying effects of poverty on downtrodden communities, and so the novel hovers in tension between a passivity both narrative and socio-political, and the possibility of self-fashioning – or of the kind of grit needed to set stories on new, as yet unwritten paths. "