I have been waiting for this book for a long time, from when it came out I was putting it off for some reason or another. Some years ago I read The Poisonwood Bible and from that moment I was hooked. I have to say though, Demon Copperhead took me longer to read and longer to actually get started because of all my other reading in the way. Released in 2022 and then immediately nominated for awards, it is an epic novel which tells the modernised version of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield which pulls out all the stops when it comes to writing, plot devices, characters and more.
“I put my face to the window so nobody would see, if I tore up. Was this me now, for life? Taking up space where people wished I wasn’t? Once on a time I was something, and then I turned, like sour milk. The dead junkie’s kid. A rotten little piece of American pie that everybody wishes could just be, you know. Removed.”
About a child born to a single teenaged mother in the Appalachian Mountains or Virginia, the family is a dire poverty but seeks to survive. In the foster car system which has been corrupted and screwed up by those in power, this book explores several interpretations of the phrase 'institutional poverty' as it climbs into the more horrifying aspects of the protagonist's life. From family to family, a tobacco farm, a dog room, hungry, cold, terribly poor and almost dying, our narrator seeks to expose the drama, truths and horrors behind the opioid epidemic of the USA. Written in a brilliant style that you can just hear in your head like a flowering of speech after a while, this is one of the more critical novels of the last five years. A story of horror, danger, altercations and sadness, the requirement for love stakes us all and, with this child from the very beginning, life has dealt him a tough deal when it comes to love.
“The first to fall in any war are forgotten. No love gets lost over one person’s reckless mistake. Only after it’s a mountain of bodies bagged do we think to raise a flag and call the mistake by a different name, because one downfall times a thousand has got to mean something. It needs its own brand, some point to all the sacrifice.”
I have to warn you though, there are certain parts of this book that can be very upsetting and depressing, which means I am going to get right back to some horror or, better yet, some folk horror, after this one. I need to cheer myself up. It has some truly horrifying images of the opioid epidemic which drew me back to a TV show I once watched called Dopesick which, in itself, was pretty harrowing and yet I could not look away. From abuses of people to abuses of substances, from poverty to poverty, from loss to grief to seeking out love and friendship without much luck - this book can hit hard a lot of the time and so, it is a good idea to have something on hand to cheer yourself up. It definitely has the same saddening feel that The Poisonwood Bible gave me.
“What’s an oxy, I’d asked. That November it was still a shiny new thing. OxyContin, God’s gift for the laid-off deep-hole man with his back and neck bones grinding like bags of gravel. For the bent-over lady pulling double shifts at Dollar General with her shot knees and ADHD grandkids to raise by herself. For every football player with some of this or that torn up, and the whole world riding on his getting back in the game. This was our deliverance. The tree was shaken and yes, we did eat of the apple.”
All in all, this is a truly horrifying book that is told through the eyes of a Dickensian character in the modern world. It feels so harrowing and sad that I was almost going to deduct a mark but, then I realised that this is exactly how the author wants to make me feel. It is so that we really see what the faults are here - what kind of mostrosities were made of regular, hard-working places that were turned into mass graves.