In Alexi Zentner’s second novel, The Lobster Kings, there is magic and mystery, there is myth and folklore, there are piercing observations about the stories we pass down through generations – and the stories we do not pass down, the things we don’t, or can’t, say and the way these silences can inform, louder than anything, the identity of a family.
The Lobster Kings is set in a fishing village on fictional Loosewood Island, a place adrift somewhere between Maine and Canada’s east coast. Here, matters are often taken into the villagers’ own hands – matters of lobster poaching, for example, or of drug running – because calling in the authorities generally results in the RCMP and the FBI arguing over just whose jurisdiction the island falls under anyway.
The narrator is Cordelia Kings, whose family has lived on Loosewood for 300 years; the first of the clan was a lobsterman and famous painter named Brumfitt Kings who, legend has it, wed a bride straight from the sea. Maybe she was a mermaid, perhaps she was a selkie, but whatever she was, she brought with her a blessing and a curse: that the family would always be provided for by the ocean, but that they would pay for their livelihood by losing every first-born son to the sea. (The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh away: this is something a family like the Kings understands more than anyone else. But if you’ve ever watched Deadliest Catch you, too, may be aware that commercial fishing is not for the faint of heart.)
Cordelia is an endearing heroine. She’s tough and trash-talking (she uses the word “peckerhead” and tells people off indiscriminately. If they don’t respond to reason, she burns their house down or gets out her gun); she’s cantankerous, but she’s also a daddy’s girl; she takes men to bed without any pretense of emotion but she also falls deeply in love with her freshly divorced sternman. If I ever find myself in major crisis – especially on the high seas – I’ll wish to have someone like Cordelia by my side. But despite her hard exterior, she spends most of her life struggling to prove herself to Woody – her father, and the patron saint of the island. Woody is the official guard of legends, waters, way of life, but he is also haunted by the deaths of his wife, son, and brother. “We’re connected to the earth and the earth is connected to the sea and once you’ve had a taste of the ocean – if you’re a true child of the ocean – nothing can keep you away,” he tells Cordelia, in a rare moment of unrestrained conversation about his personal life. (To this Cordelia replies, “Wow, Daddy, very moving. I guess you’re trying to be an actor and a poet? Or maybe you’ve been drinking.” For every dose of magic in this book, there is a counter-dose of realism.)
But for all his waxing poetic, Woody seems unable, at least from Cordelia’s perspective, to understand that she is a true child of the ocean, too. Even after her brother Scotty is carried away by the curse of the Kings – this is a difficult scene to read; characteristically, Zenter does not shy away from the brutality of death – she laments that he does not recognize her as his one true heir. Maybe he does, though, and she simply doesn’t understand him. Isn’t this so often the way with families?
In addition to Cordelia’s angst about her familial role, Zentner’s sophomore yarn grapples with the sibling rivalry between Cordelia and her sisters, Carly and Rena. However, this rivalry is surprisingly tepid given that The Lobster Kings is purported to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear. In fact, through much of the book I found myself wondering whether Zentner and I had read the same play. (If high-school English feels like a long time ago, the Coles Notes version is that nearly everyone in Lear ends up dead or crazy.) There are drug-addled villains in Zentner’s story. There are dead bodies and severed fingers and a disturbing scene involving a rape. For heaven’s sake, a dog gets shot. But still, this novel does not even scratch the surface of the insanity and darkness in Lear. The references to Shakespeare tend to feel forced. The crazy things Woody does – shooting the dog, smashing a rival lobsterman’s hand with a hammer and ending up “in the loony bin” for four months – are counterintuitive to how kind, fair and just he actually is. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary to get through a novel like this, yes, but true mental illness is never so easy to gloss over.
The unnecessarily lofty Shakespeare buttresses do little to conceal Zentner’s storytelling talent, though – and it’s hard to blame him for perhaps thinking he needed to perform literary contortions to please readers with this one. His first novel, Touch, was shortlisted for a number of awards, including the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award and the Center for Fiction’s 2011 Flahery-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and longlisted for the Giller. That’s a tough act to follow. Zentner did not shrink away from trying.
One of Zentner’s most marked authorial talents, a skill he has carried from his first novel to his second and will surely continue to grace us with, is the ability to create a place that seems real enough to live in, yet within which there is the possibility of magic that is just believable enough and entirely unbelievable at the same time. This is the sort of magic which reminds us of why the imagination is such a powerful force – stronger even than the ocean, and certainly vaster.
Marissa Stapley’s first novel, Mating for Life, will be released on June 24.