Review by

Demon Copperhead

Down and out in Opioidland

Updating one of Charles Dickens’ iconic novels is a brave thing to do. In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver we get squalor, poverty and destitution worthy of the master himself, set in modern day America during the opioid crisis. Damon Field aka Demon Copperhead’s story is one of resilience in a society where everything is stacked against someone like him; his mixed race, poverty, his mother’s addiction, the education system, the list goes on. The shocking realisation is how little things have changed since 1850, which is precisely Kingsolver’s point.

Demon is born fatherless to an addicted mother. Their home is in a trailer park in Lee County, a dark corner of Virginia ‘between the Ruelynn coal camp and a settlement people call Right Poor’. His entry into this world sets the stage.

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.

Things go from bad to worse when Demon’s mother finds a boyfriend, the ominously named Stoner. From there on, Demon is bumped from one abusive and dysfunctional foster home to another. It’s not only his mother who lets him down, the Department of Social Services puts in a good effort too. It’s down to Demon himself, basically. Wise beyond his years, with a big dose of resilience and a few talents thrown in keep him afloat…just.

Those familiar with David Copperfield will recognise many of the characters and know how it all ends for our hero. That’s not to say this book won’t be worth their while. The portrayal of the devastating realities of the opioid crisis on communities like Lee County are shell shocking and worth the read alone. Depressing as this sounds, Demon Copperhead will also make you laugh – out loud.

Our sympathies are with Demon, a flawed but ultimately loveable character. A victim of a seemingly endless circle of poverty, addiction and lack of opportunities. Kingsolver gets under his skin and inside his mind to the point where it’s almost unbelievable that this book was written by 68 year old woman and not a young man. His story may have benefitted from a bit of editing, as most books of 500+ pages do, but there is a good reason it won the Pulitzer Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year; it is simply a very good read.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is published by Faber & Faber, 560 pages.

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