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The Lobster Kings

January 12, 2015

After reading Touch, I wanted to read Alexi Zentner’s newest novel, The Lobster Kings, and received a copy for Christmas. I enjoyed reading it, dipping in for a while each night before going to sleep, but it struck me as a more ordinary novel than his first one.

The novel has an over-arching metaphor which is that the narrator’s ancestor, Brumfitt Kings, painted pictures of the island where she and her family still live, and Cordelia Kings, the narrator, believes that these pictures tell her something about how life is and how hers is going to turn out to be. There’s also a bit of King Lear going on, as you can tell from the narrator’s name. Neither of these metaphors turns out to be integral to the plot of the novel, a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story.

Cordelia lives on a fictional island on the U.S. and Canada border, has resisted her parents’ (mostly her mother’s) efforts to keep her from growing up to captain a lobster boat, and believes that her grandfather married a selkie and that the reason her younger brother died is because of a family curse. Now, after her brother and mother’s deaths, she works with and reveres her father, and she has to navigate around some rocky places in her relationship with her sisters.

The whole “grandmother was a selkie” subplot doesn’t work very well, as Cordelia tells most of the story in a level-headed way, even specifying that when her brother died
“I wish I could say that something spectacular happened, that it was a scene from one of Brumfitt’s paintings. I wish I could say that the ocean flattened into glass, sea turtles rose to encircle the Queen Jane, the weather crackled black, and the winds cursed at us, ripping a hole in the clear blue sky as water spouted into the air like hissing serpents….But I know better than that. There was nothing to set this moment aside from all of the other moments that came before and all of the other moments that came afterward. There was no magical marker to delineate then and later, no animal from the deeps reaching out and drawing Scotty away from us. It was just an accident.”
Cordelia’s later shenanigans with the pearl necklace that had been her mother’s and grandmother’s, similarly, do not convince me or either of her sisters that it’s a magic necklace brought out of the sea.

Cordelia’s father, Woody, does go crazy for a few weeks after the deaths of his wife and son, but he doesn’t give his lobstering “kingdom” away to anyone. Cordelia explains that “Daddy had been fair with us, not splitting things down the middle—or three ways—but divvying up as thing needed to be divvied.” Everyone who wants a job on a lobster boat gets one, and everyone who needs a place to live on the island gets a house or a rental or a room in Woody’s own house. Cordelia, as non-demonstrative as the rest of her family, is determined to inherit his role as community leader and family storyteller.

When something happens to one of the characters, the narrative is often interrupted by Cordelia telling about one of Brumfitt King’s paintings, the one she thinks comments on the preceding action. And the ending, well, it’s pure magic. A magic that Cordelia says she believes in, but which hasn’t become real for the reader.

The Lobster Kings is a perfectly good novel without magic, though. I enjoyed it, and didn’t mind its ambition to be anything more than a good story about how Cordelia comes into her own.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2015 12:47 pm

    I’m not sure it’s the book for me, but I very much enjoyed reading your review of it!

    • January 16, 2015 10:36 am

      Glad you did. I must admit to having a bit of a fascination with lobsters. It’s one of the interests I share with the writer at Care’s Online Book Blog!

  2. January 14, 2015 2:07 pm

    Hmm, it sounds enjoyable but I’ve got so many really excellent books in my TBR that I think I’ll have to skip this one for now at least. I did enjoy your review of it!

    • January 16, 2015 10:34 am

      It was a good book for winter evenings, but I mostly read it because of the Grinnell connection.

  3. Jenny permalink
    January 14, 2015 4:08 pm

    I really like selkie stories. Have you read Alice Thomas Ellis’s The Inn at the End of the World? That’s a fantastic book that has selkies just around the edges, so you can’t see them if you look directly. It’s a wonderful book to read in the winter, as well.

    • January 16, 2015 10:33 am

      I have not read the Ellis yet, but thank you for the recommendation. While looking around for it, I discovered that Goodreads has a long list of popular selkie books–it’s practically a genre!

  4. January 21, 2015 2:00 pm

    I adored Touch so I’ve been meaning to read his follow up. I’m glad it’s good, as I always have a bit of fear when I read a second book by an author I loved the first time around!

    • January 21, 2015 2:01 pm

      Forgot to add, it seems a shame that it’s more ordinary though. The magic in Touch was so well done.

      • January 21, 2015 9:06 pm

        Maybe I wasn’t in the mood, or maybe the magic here has more seams. Either way, it didn’t work as well for me in this one.

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