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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Well we finished 2023 with our third highest scoring book of the year. A modern retelling of a classic set against a backdrop of addiction, poverty and inequality in rural Virginia. To the reader, Demon is a spirited and resilient narrator, surviving a chaotic life of neglect, foster care, opioid dependency and emotional abuse. His story is one of lurching from one difficulty to another, a life he deals with pragmatically, having learned from an early age to have no expectation that others will step in, nor that he is deserving of that help. He survives on his wits, fuelled by anger and a survival instinct, discovering some hidden talents (legal and not so legal) along the way. Those who do try to help are faced first with the challenge of earning his trust. It’s a novel which highlights how life can change direction in a moment, the importance of inspirational teachers and role models who believe Demon matters, and the importance of friends who want to treat him as family, but also how easily that can be undermined by a lack of trust, volatile situations that can spiral rapidly out of control, and how the unscrupulous knowingly exploit systems and the vulnerable. Whilst the novel doesn’t shy away from shining a light on neglect, trauma and addiction, there is kindness in several forms in Demon’s life – his struggle is to accept that kindness and love, and to trust that it won’t disappear. As a reader you can’t help but be invested in Demon’s life as he makes his choices, living with the consequences (good and bad) and becoming a strange mix of street wiseness and naïveté. As a book club we were split pretty much 50/50 in terms of our familiarity, or lack of, with David Copperfield, and whilst a knowledge of that story would add an extra layer to Demon Copperhead, it’s not essential to be fully engaged. The story is as relevant now as it was in Dickens’s time. It’s cleverly done in that, in many ways, you don’t feel as though you are reading a contemporary novel – there are small nods here and there to remind you that this novel is rooted in the present-day – yet it’s all too clear that the issues of poverty, injustice and exploitation are the same today as they were in Dickensian times. The writing is so good that you relive Demon’s life with him as he retells it. We were rooting for him throughout.

Overall score: 8.2

Range: 7 -9

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