Book review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Book review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

by Carolyn Thomas

Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookshop and get yourself a copy of Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver.

It’s just won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction – and other literary awards surely won’t be far behind as the novel has already become a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic.  The Pulitzer judges described the book as ‘masterful’ in its discussion of poverty, addiction, institutional failure, and moral collapse. 

Best known for her 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver has now reimagined the classic coming of age novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Her modern interpretation uses a narrative structure similar to the original, but she has moved the action to southern Appalachian Mountains of rural America during the 1980s where the current American opioid crisis rages particularly fiercely. 

You’ll recognise many Copperfield characters reborn – Demon as David of course, also his cruel stepfather Stoner as Edward Murdstone, neighbours the Peggots as Dicken’s Peggotty family, the McCobbs as the Micawbers and so on. 

Yet Kingsolver’s reimagining makes the story entirely new. Although readers who know their Dickens won’t be surprised by the action, they should be delighted by the re-casting and reworking of the setting and the characters.

Born in trailer park poverty to a neglectful, teenaged, drug-addicted single mother, our hero and narrator Demon, known as Copperhead for his red hair, is at the mercy of outside help from his earliest years while his mother goes in and out of rehab. Sometimes the support is from neighbours, at other times he’s ‘in the system’ of foster parents and homes, marshalled by an ever-changing line up of social workers.  Demon reckons early on that ‘a kid is a terrible thing to be, in charge of nothing’ as he is moved here and there by child services.

Naturally enough, Demon becomes a self-reliant character as he battles to survive, so that the reader is really rooting for him. Yet despite being ‘street smart’ Demon descends into addictions of his own, while also finding love and (briefly) some success. Overall the storytelling remains just as powerful as the classic it has sprung from. It’s a page turner. More details would spoil the reading experience, although that sounds strange considering the ‘source material’ is over 170 years old.

Some of the unflinching descriptions of childhood misery reminded me of 2020’s Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. It’s bleak – but as the back page blurb correctly states, this epic tale of love, loss and everything in between, is ‘suffused with truth, anger and compassion.’


  • Out now in paperback, published by Faber in the UK. First published HarperCollins in US in 2022.


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