The Short Version: For centuries, the Kings Family have been lobstermen in the waters around Loosewood Island. Their founding member, Brumfitt Kings, was blessed by the sea but cursed by it as well: they would live well off the bounty of the sea but owe it a son, every generation. In the present, the fading patriarch works with his eldest daughter Cordelia to keep their family and their waters safe – but is the power of myth too strong?
The Review: It’s a complex burden to place upon a novel, drawing inspiration from King Lear. After all, Lear is widely regarded as of the most complex (and/or “best”) plays ever written – and having just seen the John Lithgow production in Central Park, the knotty and multifarious issues in the play are certainly still relevant. But how to pay homage to the greatest writer in the history of the English language while also creating a story that stands on its own? Where do you draw the line?
The answer is clear in Alexi Zentner’s beautiful book: you take only what you want and leave what doesn’t work to one side. Oh yes, the Shakespeare-inclined among you will tip a knowing grin at “Eddie Glouster” and “Oswald Cornwall” – and Woody Kings, the patriarch, is an amateur Shakespearean every summer and wanted to name his three daughters after Lear’s own brood. There’s even a lovely (and flat-out admitted in the text) nod to the first scene of Lear and “nothing will come from nothing” but Zentner doesn’t try to shoehorn the play into the action or vice versa. Instead, these moments, which are often winked at by the characters anyway, feel like knowing nods to the way that myth can influence our daily lives.
For there is a second strain of myth running through this novel, one that was born out of the sea but that feels wholly original to Mr. Zentner’s piece: the myths of Brumfitt Kings and Loosewood Island. Brumfitt’s wife supposedly came from the sea, he supposedly fought a dragon, he supposedly painted a series of paintings that (if the stories are true) tell the whole story of the Kings family – and there are all kind of shorter, smaller myths, too. And while we might be inclined to say “oh, mmhmm, ‘myth’, such a lovely story”, it’s hard to disagree with the influence of some mystical/otherworldly/mythic forces at play. You could say that the profession of being a lobsterman is simply a dangerous one and that should account for the deaths of a son in every generation – but you could also look to the fact that it is, pretty much without fail, simply a son and that’s it in each generation. Odd coincidence or mythic confluence? Zentner keeps the question out there for the duration of the novel but he also makes the atmosphere one that feels conducive to the possibility of myth being real. Have you ever been out on a lake when the fog rolls in? On an island where, just around the next corner, might be a vista that feels like something out-of-time? In a place like that, couldn’t you believe in myth pretty easily?
Zentner keeps the story flowing like the lobster, too. While he takes his time introducing the action – the novel begins in the ‘present’ but then takes a good 75 or so pages to build up the family history and bring us closer to Cordelia, our heroine – it never feels like exposition. Nothing feels unnecessary but instead like various parts of a single massive painting. Over here, we have the sisters and their tangled relationship while on this side we have the plot with the fishing turf wars and in the center is Cordelia looking to her father and everyone struggling (whether or not they say so) with the idea of being a woman wearing the crown. It all comes together into a single image, like one of Brumfitt’s weirder paintings, and it’s the sort of quietly impressive work that you might not hear cheered too often but that’s because it doesn’t demand acclaim; rather, it just wraps you up and then deposits you on the far shore and you barely even felt the waves.
The only part of the plot that feels somewhat rougher is that involving James Harbor (town name, not a person) and the turf war between it & Loosewood Island. For the most part, it flows well but there are moments towards the end where it threatens to get bigger than the story should be forced to manage. I won’t spoil anything by saying why – and Zentner, thankfully, realizes that this isn’t the point of the novel and so let’s it (for the most part) stay as a sort of MacGuffin-y context for the interpersonal family/friend plots. That said, the denouement feels a little jarring compared to the placid magic of the rest of the novel. Even a scene of horrific tragedy at sea doesn’t feel out of place – but the almost-end scenes, while expected and even necessary, just stands out with somewhat sharper edges. Still, he resolves the novel with scenes of family and myth that make it clear what his purpose was: to tell the story of Cordelia Kings and the legacy of bearing a modern sort of myth.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Zentner’s prose flows so easily that I defy a reader not to be wrapped up in the story within a few pages, even if it doesn’t seem like their cup of tea. He keeps just to one side of magical realism, instead aiming for the other ‘m’ word: myth. And how better to tip the hat to King Lear and to Shakespeare and other greats (Melville certainly had some influence here too) than to acknowledge the way we (meaning humanity) create and adapt stories and legends and people? I wish the Kings Family good fishing and happy days – and the same to anybody with the sort of family who inspires myths, too.