Archive for the ‘Zentner, Alexi (2)’ Category

The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

June 8, 2014

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.


New Face of Fiction, 2011 — Touch, by Alexi Zentner

April 12, 2011

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Alexi Zentner’s debut Touch is a three-generation novel. Jeannot, the grandfather, is the “founder” of gold-town Sawgamet, discovered while he was fleeing an abusive adolescent past — a disaster will cause him to flee again when his own son is a young child, but he will return three decades later. That son, the Papa of the novel, is a logger who lives his entire life in the frontier community — he will die young trying to rescue his daughter who has fallen through the ice while skating on the river early in the book. His son, the narrator, has just returned to the community as its new Anglican priest. He had left almost a quarter century ago at the age of 16 to attend the seminary in Edmonton, went overseas as a chaplain in the Great War and now has returned to attend his dying mother and take over from his stepfather, the incumbent priest who is ready to retire.

Touch is also a frontier novel. The fleeing teenaged Jeannot set up shop in the wilderness here only because his dog refused to go further. It turns out the reason the dog stopped was because he was sitting above a large, buried piece of gold, which Jeannot eventually finds. That not only provides him economic security, it provokes a gold rush — Jeannot wisely gives up prospecting himself to set up a lumber business, selling at very high prices to those searching for ore. Gold rushes come and go, but logging always remains. In the present tense of the book, that business is still booming — now producing the timbers that a nation which has just entered World War II requires.

Touch is also a spiritual book, not just with the Christian narrator and his pastor stepfather, but with the indigenous spirits that come with the territory. The idea of faith and just what to have faith in is ever present in the book. The way that Zentner handles these over-arching, intertwining themes is best illustrated from a quote early-on in the book, as the narrator recalls his father. In the woods, he was a logging foreman who had to be as tough as tough was required:

He pushed them hard, and when they pushed back, he came home with bruises, an eye swollen shut, scabs on his knuckles. He made them listen.

At home, he was gentle. At night, he told us stories about his father, how Jeannot found gold and settled Sawgamet, and then the long winter that followed the bust. He told us about the qallupilliut and Amaguq, the trickster wolf god, about the loup-garou and the blood-drinking adlet, about all of the monsters and witches of the woods. He told us about the other kinds of magic that he stumbled across in the cuts, how the sawdust grew wings and flew down men’s shirts like mosquitoes, how one tree picked itself up and walked away from the sharp teeth of the saw. He told us about splitting open a log to find a fairy kingdom, about clearing an entire forest with one swing of his ax, about the family of trees he had found twisted together, pushing toward the sky, braided in love.

Three generations, all of whom have to battle for survival. A punishing frontier, that while yielding both gold and timber, never yields completely. Native spirits, “the monsters and witches of the woods”. It should come as no surprise that omniscient Mother Nature is a fourth thread of the book: She is always present but the dramatic turning point of the novel comes with the winter that featured “thirty feet of snow”.

Any one of those four threads could serve as a defining theme for traditional Canadian fiction — I’m pretty sure if I went back to Margaret Atwood’s 1972 critical work, Survival, I would find examples (if not whole chapters) devoted to each of the four. And while Canadian fiction has moved beyond merely works about “survival”, it does not mean that they have disappeared completely — a couple of years back, Giller Prize judge and British author, Victoria Glendenning, got in some hot water here when she wrote a UK newspaper column that referenced the prevalance of these kinds of themes in contemporary Canadian fiction. You can read a short quote from that column introducing my review of Jeanette Lynes’ The Factory Voice, another Canadian survival novel (albeit a more urban one) set in the same time frame as the present of this novel.

Zentner goes beyond the norm, however, by including all four themes, rather than just one or two. And he complicates matters further by moving backwards and forwards in time — the narrator frequently invokes lengthy memories to introduce stories of what happened two generations ago, but equally frequently returns from those memories to the present to draw implications and lessons from the incidents, both major and minor, that occured decades ago. The constants, of course, are the resources (both mineral and arboreal), the aboriginal spirits and the unrelenting climate that offers as many bad years as good ones.

While the result is not totally successful (let’s face it, a lot of juggling is required to keep four strains with that kind of impact going), for this reader the author succeeded much more often than he failed. The result, and it is to his credit as an author, is that the strength of the book lies not in the portrayal of any of those forces, but in the fully-developed portraits he produces of the characters that must face them. Jeannot, his wife and the pioneers around them all come to life — as do the narrator’s parents and the generation around them. And given that the narrator has just returned to his birthplace when he tells the story, all of this is wrapped up in the future of a character who, at the age of 40, is about to start the next phase of his life in the community called Sawgamet. (I am guilty of reviewer gender bias in concentrating on the male characters — rest assured their female partners are every bit as important to the story and every bit as well-developed.)

I am not sure how well this novel will travel outside of Canada, although Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, which has similarities in both frontier setting and some themes, is travelling very well with its recently-announced Orange Prize short-listing and talk of possible Booker acknowledgement (yes, I am cheering for her on both). Perhaps instead of lamenting yet more novels with themes that have always been common in Canadian fiction, it is time to celebrate the way that debut authors are returning to them with even more impressive results.

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