Book review: Demon Copperhead

Demon Copperhead

Barbara Kingsolver

Jonathan Ball

Review: Karen Watkins

No sooner had this much anticipated novel arrived on our shores before it hit the best-seller list.

The story begins in Lee County, Virginia, America, a rural town blighted by a lack of jobs after being abandoned for coal mining and swallowed by drugs.

Our hero and narrator, Damon Fields, known as Demon and nicknamed Copperhead for his red hair, enters the world punching his way out of his amniotic sack on the floor of his teenaged single mum’s trailer home.

At age 11 his mum dies of an overdose after becoming entangled in an abusive relationship. With no father’s name on Demon’s birth certificate, he enters the foster system.

Bounced from one home to another, he hits the road searching for family members. He ends up living with a football coach who sees success for Demon.

The story touches on issues of child labour under the overwhelmed child protective services. It’s a shocking scam to modern-day slavery with dodgy foster parents signing on for the state’s monthly cheques and the free labour. The other issue is addiction.

Demon grew up in the early days of the miracle pill, OxyContin, an opioid prescribed for pain but highly addictive. Kingsolver deftly weaves drug use into the story as a conspiracy of capitalism and criminality targeting poor Americans to create a deadly industry.

Sounds heavy? It is and can be told in far fewer pages with less “padding” and more plot and character development. Despite this the pages keep turning, revealing Demon’s next challenge and how he navigates it.

The book is dedicated to the survivors and begins with a quote by Charles Dickens from David Copperfield. In a brief afterword, Kingsolver expresses her gratitude to Dickens for writing, “his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in society”.

She has written a modern retelling of Dickens’ story through Demon who is the voice of a new generation of lost boys.