The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Second novels from authors whose debuts have been very impressive always face an uphill challenge. Will the author break free from — or extend — the elements that defined that first success or merely try to repeat them? Can he or she maintain the strengths (be it structure, plot, voice, prose, or whatever) that worked while finding some new spice to add to the mix? And finally a winning debut automatically produces raised reader expectations for effort number two — a challenge that is difficult even for authors with a string of successes.

Alexi Zentner’s 2011 debut, Touch, certainly fits the category of “impressive” and not just in the opinion of this reviewer. Now published in more than a dozen countries, it made a number of prize longlists, including the Giller and Governor-General’s in Canada. A multi-generational story set in British Columbia gold rush country (but featuring a logging community, not a mining one), it featured an intriguing cast of frontier characters, all of whom the author developed fully. While most of the narrative was straight-forward, Zentner showed the impressive ability to occasionally introduce “unreal” elements (mythical, spiritual, even “natural” — the novel features one of the most massive snowstorms in my experience in fiction) that sent his story off in a totally different direction.

I will cut straight to the chase: for this reader, his second novel, The Lobster Kings, is even better than the debut. It does have some issues (which I’ll mention later in the review) that may cause others not to share that opinion — I’ll just say that as I approached the finish, I felt even more enrolled in the book that I had with Touch.

The Lobster Kings is also a multi-generational story — and it too involves a “frontier”, although it is cross-continent from the setting of Touch. The Kings family of the title has lived on Loosewood Island off the coast of New Brunswick and Maine for almost 300 years. Brumfitt Kings was the island’s first “settler” back in 1720, left behind by the Irish fishing fleet to tend to the drying racks, gear and supplies that would be needed when they returned for the next fishing season.

To catch his first lobster, Brumfitt didn’t bother with boats or traps or anything more complicated than simply wading into the water at low tide and gaffing a lobster ten or twelve pounds or more. He caught lobsters five feet long. When I was young I heard old men down at the harbour and in the diner talking about how when their grandfathers were boys they saw lobster claws nailed to the sides of boathouses, claws big enough to crush a man’s head. The lobsters are smaller now, but they’ve done well for the Kings. Back when I was a girl in school, we were told about how lobsters used to be cheap trash fish for filling bellies, but it’s hard to believe. Daddy and I both drop pots and haul lines and he’s raised all three of us girls on the money the lobsters bring in.

That excerpt is from the opening paragraph of the novel and Zentner has already thrown his first curve to the reader — “back when I was a girl”. The second-oldest Kings son has always been the “king” of Loosewood Island. Woody Kings (the “Daddy” of the quote) is in his late 50s and will soon have to leave the back-breaking work of lobster fishing — Cordelia, the narrator of the novel and skipper of Kings’ Ransom, is in line to become the first “matriarch” Kings to “rule” Loosewood Island.

Second-oldest son? Here’s where the mystical creeps in. Family legend says that Brumfitt’s wife was a mermaid who emerged from the sea wearing a pearl necklace (which is still in the family). She promised bountiful prosperity to the Kings who would rule both island and surrounding sea, but there would be a price: the first-born son of each generation would be claimed by the sea.

That prophecy has proved true ever since, including in the present generation — Cordelia’s brother drowned in a fishing accident when he was eight. In this generation, there is no second son to take over.

Cordelia has been aware of all this since she was a child as reading Brumfitt’s old diaries has long been a favorite pastime. Also, Brumfitt was not just a diarist, he was a painter (there isn’t much to do when you are the only soul on an island for an entire winter) and not just any amateur. His “folk art” works which feature Loosewood Island, its people (including himself and family) and mythical sea creatures are represented in major gallery collections in both the U.S. and Canadian northeast. When the lobster season shuts down for the summer on Loosewood, “Brumfitt tourists” are the island’s sole source of revenue. And some of them choose to stay, so the island now has a well-established artistic community.

Times are changing, however, and not just with the prospect of a matriarch Kings. The fishers of James Harbor, the closest mainland community, are crowding each other out of fishing areas and lobster stock is declining: they have started dropping their traps off Loosewood Island. While there is no legally protected space, there is a generations-old code of honor about who gets to fish where — and this “invasion” needs to be met. One of the jobs of the ruling Kings is to serve as the Loosewood community leader in the response.

In fact, the invasion is even worse than one of fishing territory. For some years, mainland fishers with a need for money have been running loads of marijuana from Canada to U.S. shores — one trip yields as much cash as a couple months of fishing. Now the lower elements of James Harbor have expanded into meth production and distribution. Drugs have never been part of Loosewood culture and the small community wants no part of them now.

Just to complete my sketch of the key elements of the book, let me add a few of the human ones. Cordelia has two sisters, neither of whom want any part of being on the water, but who are equally attached to Loosewood and its history. And her “sternman” Kenny, husband of the local teacher (and they are both from “away”), is both handsome and adept. Cordelia, who has always restricted her relationships with men to summer flings with visitors, is discovering a personal side that she has not experienced before.

Given that sketch, it does not take to much imagination to speculate on how the plot develops. For this reader, by the time Zentner was starting to pull all those elements together I was more than willing to go along for the trip. And I was more than satisfied when the dramatic final chapters came to a close.

Now about those concerns that I mentioned earlier. With the range of elements he uses, from the mermaid and deadly curse at one end to the violence of drug dealing at the other, Zentner needs a fair bit of unlikely coincidence and happenstance to pull his story lines together. I was more than willing to accept that because I found his characters, especially Cordelia, to be worth granting the licence — those who are less enrolled by the characters may be more disturbed by some of the unlikely developments.

Perhaps more of an issue for those less impressed with the novel than me will be the sentimentality that runs through the book, including its conclusion. Sentimentality is one of those “killer” elements that frequently sinks a novel (Aside: In a Martin Amis presentation I was at a couple years back, he confessed that it is only in the last few years he has allowed himself to be “sentimental”). It didn’t bother me (although I confess I was conscious of it) because I had positive feelings for all the members of the Kings family — I suspect some readers will find it more of a hurdle.

Those caveats noted, The Lobster Kings was still a five-star success. I’ll be awaiting Zentner’s third novel with even higher expectations than I had for this second one.

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9 Responses to “The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner”

  1. David Says:

    Ah, Kevin, you and I normally agree over most books, but it looks like we had completely different reactions to ‘The Lobster Kings’. Your five-star success was my two-star mess, which is annoying as I’d been looking forward to this for months having enjoyed ‘Touch’ so much (images from that novel, particularly the thirty foot snow drift, have lodged themselves permanently in my mind).

    Where the magic realist elements of ‘Touch’ were skillfully interwoven throughout the novel, here I found their confinement to the Brumfitt sections a real problem – by keeping that aspect in the distant past it becomes too much of a fantasy element and so when it does eventually intrude into the present it feels jarring and unbelievable.
    Nor do I buy the whole painting thing: I know Brumfitt finds himself with time on his hands, but these are HUGE canvases packed with detail and there are seemingly hundreds of them – some would have taken weeks if not months each to paint. And the description of them as Winslow Homer meets Andrew Wyeth: I’d already been visualising Homer before that mention in the novel, except these are painted a century earlier so his paintings are clearly ahead of their time which is unlikely in the circumstances.

    As for the present-day story, whilst I enjoyed Cordelia’s feistiness, on the whole I found it to be half soap opera, half bad Western. The Kings and the James Harbor Boys: it sounds like the Earps and the Clantons with James Harbor as lawless Tombstone. Worse still, the characters all behave like cowboys too – some of the gung-ho dialogue when the Loosewood Island lobstermen get together is straight out of a comic book, and the villain of the piece is so one-dimensional and needlessly brutal that he is hard to take seriously. Though, when he states that Woody Kings is nothing but a bully and has no God-given right to the waters I was inclined to agree with him. And that drug-smuggling plot never seems properly explained or fully developed.
    The Lear allusions felt heavy-handed too, and again I questioned the reason for them since the novel isn’t a reworking of the play and other than the scene (more dodgy dialogue) where Woody divvies up his kingdom, Zentner seems to let it fade away.

    There were some arresting scenes – for all it seemed silly I quite enjoyed the ghost ship segment – and I liked Cordelia, but overall I was very disappointed with the book.
    Still, I enjoyed your review and found it interesting to read a different take on the novel.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I can’t reject any of your criticisms — I had concerns with each of them but was willing to go along with the flow.

      I also am not totally surprised by your two-star rating. I thought after finishing the book (and I guess the last few paras of my review reflect it) that this was a “leaning tree” novel. If the tree is leaning towards liking the book, it isn’t hard to keep it headed in that direction despite the problems. Once it starts to lean in the other direction, there are a lot of problems that only get bigger and bigger when the critical eye is applied.

      As usual, many thanks for the thoughtful comments. We do normally agree on books, but I can understand why we headed in different directions on this one.

  2. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since I read that Zentner had a new one out (I follow him on Twitter). Pleased to hear you thought it better than his first, because I adored that novel when I read it for the Shadow Giller. For once, it has been released in the UK at around the same time, so I will look forward to reading it soonish.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Given the different responses that David and I had, I will be very interested in what you think. And I’ll leave it at that for now. :-)

      • kimbofo Says:

        My Other Half has just kindly ordered it for me from that online company we shouldn’t really be supporting. If it arrives on the weekend I will look forward to starting it. I need a bit of a break from ANZ Lit. ;-)

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        As you can probably tell from my review, I think you are going to find some comparisons with Aussie “coastal frontier” fiction — I’m sure there is some novel from there that is set in whatever the Oz version of warring lobster fisher communities is.

  3. EN Jones Says:

    THE LOBSTER KINGS Borrows Heavily from THE FISHER KING by Hayley Kelsey
    Alexi Zentner’s second novel (May 27), set on fictional Loosewood Island straddling Maine and Canada, revolves around a 300-year-old lobsterman’s family named Kings: Father Woody, eldest daughter Cordelia, and sisters Rena and Carly. Descendants of painter Brumfitt, who, lore has it, married a mermaid, they inherit a family curse that claims the lives of each generation’s first-born son as when nine-year-old Scotty is swept overboard. Guilty over her rivalry with Scotty, Cordelia resolves to fill his shoes as captain and lobsterman. She takes charge when nearby James Harbor lobstermen start poaching the Kings’s waters and drug smuggling to addict the island’s inhabitants. Tough Woody fights back, but at 57 and ill, he only has so much fight left, so Cordelia steps in to avenge the family territory, cutting the enemy’s lobster traplines and discovering a dismembered corpse, which culminates in a piratical shoot-out.
    The author reprises the strongly mythic quality of his first novel in the descriptions of ancestor Brumfitt’s paintings that are interspersed with present-day chapters. But the use of myth here is heavy-handed, clunky, and fails to add dimension to the characters’ history or the plot or to resonate in any way. Allusions to Cordelia’s dalliance with an African-American and to Carly’s lesbian partner are painfully obvious set points designed to give the novel “Politically Correct” elements intended to appeal to contemporary readers.
    The novel reflects a paucity of imagination and felt emotion at every turn: the characters lack complexity and their relationships are based on minor squabbles, which only further erodes any dimensionality. If their fishing rights (hence, livelihoods) are being encroached on, they seem petty squabbling over jewelry instead of strategizing how to get rid of vandals and meth dealers.
    The prose is not the least bit evocative, and there’s so little description woven into the scenes that they “float,” leaving the reader confused as to where and when they’re taking place. Because of the dichotomy between the first-person narrator’s educated voice and the narrative voice, which makes liberal use of slang and comes across as folksy but not intimate, Cordelia’s voice is simply not believable.
    Presumably the plot revolves around the threats of off-islanders encroaching on island waters and dealing meth, but the author never renders a scene that makes them real to the reader, nor does he provide any evidence that they are, in fact, threats, such as by lost revenue or drug-addled adolescents, so nothing is actually at stake in the novel. Author fails to lay the groundwork for or build to crisis events and instead springs them on the reader so they occur out of a vacuum, then handily dispenses with them in a truncated narrative so they don’t advance the plot, build suspense, or add character depth. The scenes are violent, but not climactic. One incident merely follows another with no build-up to them, no rendering of conflict, and no repercussions from them. At each opportunity, he robs the reader of the chance to actually experience the story and characters.
    The author makes a play for “Literary Greatness” by tying the novel to KING LEAR, but it falls flat largely because his characters and plot are so wide of the Lear theme. Instead, the novel seems to borrow heavily from THE FISHER KING, by Hayley Kelsey, published in 2011. In fact, the similarities, both large and small, are striking: The title, family surname, and storyline (threat to fishing rights; waterman family patriarch resists change, return to island), characters (feisty first-person female narrator, tyrannical patriarch, passive male characters), character relationships (rivalry among three siblings), character development (narrator’s guilt for abandoning dreamy younger brother to workplace death; aging patriarch falls ill but resists doctors), setting (island), theme (inheritance of watershed and fishing business, woman tries transcend sexism of physical labor), and literary allusions (Grail Knight).
    But the richly imagined THE FISHER KING is the infinitely better novel. Not only does it ambitiously address such big themes as overfishing in an era of global trade, who’s responsible for a commons in a free market economy, the competing interests of stewardship v. inheritance, and what connotes possession by posing such questions as who “owns” the sea: the public or watermen who work it and know it best? But the author makes the political achingly personal in the deeply felt and generously evoked very real lives of characters trapped by circumstances (sometimes of their own making) as pressure from a punishing summer drought mounts on an island community and a family to pit brother against brother, and father against son while the fate of the precarious watershed waits.
    In compliance with FTC Guidelines Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, the reviewer received an ARC free from the publisher unconditionally based on positive or negative review. The opinions expressed are his own.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I debated about whether or not to approve this comment — simply cutting and pasting a review from elsewhere doesn’t really seem to fit the idea of “discussion”. On the other hand, the point is well argued and the comparisons with The Fisher King are not ones I have seen elsewhere. I doubt very much that this novel “borrows heavily” from that one — I don’t doubt that the two have some obviously similarities.

      And by way of notice, in future I won’t be approving cut-and-paste reviews as comments.

  4. EN Jones Says:

    Does forming an opinion about a book one hasn’t read constitute starting an intelligent or ignorant “discussion?”

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