1 March 2024 Susannah

Demon Copperhead

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

It has not been a cheerful listening experience, but it has certainly been a memorable one!

I’ve been deep in the audio version of Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, published in 2022, and superbly read on audio by Charlie Thurston. I loved her book The Poisonwood Bible but was attracted to this one mainly because it is a modern update of Dickens’ David Copperfield. And what a clever update it proved to be, with poor young David transformed into a trailer-trash kid in Virginia, his young mother dying from oxycontin addiction, farmed out to the owner of a tobacco farm where he does slave labour, and sleeping in the laundry room of a family called McCobb (based on the Micawbers in Dickens). The updates of names are clever too – Dora is modernised to Dori, Steerforth becomes Sterling Ford, Uriah Heep is turned into U-Haul because he drives people around a lot, and Agnes becomes a tomboy who prefers to be known as Angus. Damon himself is an intensely likeable and nuanced hero and narrator.

The novel is also an indictment of American society today. Orphaned Demon is the victim of negligent case workers, foster parents who want the security cheque and not the child, drug-addicted prostitutes who steal from him, and an education system that fails to help. The whole arc of Dickens’ great classic is there, so the plot holds few surprises, but the excitement comes in seeing how all is believably changed for the 21st century. There were a few minor disappointments – the Mr Micawber equivalent lacks that character’s feckless charm and is simply mean and stupid, the novel was too heavy-handed about the opioid crisis (though I know how appalling that was, having watched ‘Painkiller’ on Netflix not long ago), and the book did lack the foreshadowing and deep richness of David Copperfield (I’m not sure I’d ever want to reread Kingsolver’s book, whereas I love returning to David’s story as told by Dickens in this most autobiographical of all his novels). However, it was a memorable read and I was fascinated.

I know this book has been popular with book groups. Has your book group read and discussed it? Did reading this book send you off to find David Copperfield? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Comments (6)

  1. sue walsh

    Demon Copperhead won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. But shouldn’t there be a separate award for appropriated (if this is the right word) fiction like this, where Kingsolver has ridden on the back of the creativity of the original author, Charles Dickens? Not just with the structure and characters, transposed to an Appalachian setting, but with tiny powerful incidents e.g. Demon/David biting the hand of the cruel stepfather, Demon/David finding a savage dog in the enclosure that used to be a haven, and so on and on.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It’s an interesting dilemma. Barbara Kingsolver has created a new work of fiction, but off the back of another novelist. Is that theft, or is it a big compliment. I really enjoyed the book and thought she did such a clever job, and I don’t mind books based on books by other authors if they are well done. I guess every reader needs to make up his or her own mind about it all.

  2. Hello Susannah,
    Truth be told we thought Demon was outstanding. I think everyone in my bookgroup appreciated it as a story and as a reflection of US society and those not so lucky within it. We also read it in the same year as Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. Suggest you read it – my book of the year – and a real reflection of what the crisis has done to the US. In the light of that book Demon did not seem overdone. Those are my thoughts on it. I appreciated your comparisons with David Copperfield. All the best,

  3. Malvina Yock

    I found Demon Copperhead to be one of the best books I read in 2023. I absolutely loved the way the author translated the book into the present, but still followed the plot of David Copperfield. A friend of mine read David Copperfield alongside the audio version of Demon Copperhead, so they paced side by side, and found it one of the most memorable experiences of her reading life. I loved the audio book, I thought the narrator absolutely nailed his performance. I wanted to listen to more by him so went exploring, only to discover that the accent he uses in DC is completely different to his normal speaking voice. Wow, talent. I could and probably will read both books again. I reread Dickens all the time, and I’d love to maybe do what my friend did, and pace my reading of the two books together.

  4. Honey

    I did not read this one but I did read The Lacuna by Miss Kingsolver and I found that book atrocious, full of nonsense, mediocrity and wrongheadedness.

    I am afraid it put me off ever wanting to read another book by her.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *