Highlighting indicates debut books
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
History, Science & Current Affairs
The Kings family has lived on Loosewood Island for three hundred years, blessed with the bounty of the sea. But for the Kings, this blessing comes with a curse: the loss of every firstborn son. Now, Woody Kings, the leader of the island's lobster fishing community and the family patriarch, teeters on the throne, and Cordelia, the oldest of Woody's three daughters, stands to inherit the crown. To do so, however, she must defend her island from meth dealers from the mainland while navigating sibling rivalry and the vulnerable nature of her own heart when she falls in love with her sternman.
Inspired by King Lear, The Lobster Kings is the story of Cordelia's struggle to maintain her island's way of life in the face of danger from offshore and the rich, looming, mythical legacy of her family's namesake.
Cordelia King has grown up with the legend of her ancestor, Brumfitt Kings, a lobster fisherman who later came to some renown for his paintings of Loosewood Island in Maine, which generations of Kings have called home. While Brumfitt, who launched the legend 300 years ago, had a bounty of lobster to work with, catches have been dwindling and neighboring towns' meth problems are fast encroaching upon Loosewood as well. Cordelia inherits the business from her father, Woody, and tries to keep it afloat.
Woody and his three daughters allow for references to King Lear, which seem forced after a while. Just as he did in his debut, Touch, Alexi Zentner works ample touches of magical realism in this novel as well. Unfortunately these little inspired flashes are not enough to rescue the story that borders on melodrama.
"His fusion of myth and mission, fury and beauty, as well as the palpable sense of place in this unique corner of the world add up to a memorable tale." - Publishers Weekly
"Zentner spends a good deal of time setting up the family mythology and echoing Shakespeare's King Lear, but when the fishing wars heat up, so does the plot. With its strong female lead and its evocative setting, this could well be Zentner's breakout book." - Booklist
"An ugly turf war between Maine lobstermen is almost eclipsed by family mythology in this slow-moving second novel from Zentner (Touch, 2011)...That corny ancient curse is an awkward fit with contemporary shenanigans." - Kirkus
"Confirms what Touch already prophesied: Alexi Zentner is one of the greatest literary architects and mythmakers working today." - Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife
"The Lobster Kings is a powerhouse of a novel. Alexi Zentner proves himself to be a writer of the first rank with this story of one woman's determination to carry on her family's legacy in the face of the encroaching pressures of modernity and the strictures of a patriarchal culture." - Ben Fountain, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
"With a knowing nod to King Lear, The Lobster Kings follows a patriarch's fading powers and a dynasty's uncertain future in the face of a changing world. As in his wonderful debut, Touch, Alexi Zentner gives us a family saga that contains the origin story of a magical, once timeless place where the past and present must inevitably collide." - Stewart O'Nan, author of Last Night at the Lobster and Emily, Alone
Rated of 5
Novel Borrows Heavily from THE FISHER KING by Hayley Kelsey
Zentner's second novel is set on fictional Loosewood Island between Maine and Canada and revolves around a 300-year-old lobster fishing family tradition named Kings: Father Woody, eldest daughter Cordelia, and her two younger 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 occurs when nine-year-old Scotty is swept overboard. Guilty over her rivalry with Scotty, Cordelia blames herself for not looking after him with more vigilance, and devotes herself to trying 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 theme of leaving and returning to the island permeates the novel: Rena's husband Tucker does. And the author introduces a romantic subplot when Cordelia's sternman, Yale-educated Kenny Treat, leaves his wife and the island only to return as Cordelia's lover. Allusions to Cordelia's dalliance with an African-American and to Carly's lesbian partner are obvious set points to give the novel "Politically Correct" elements patently designed to be palatable to contemporary readers.
The author reprises the strongly mythic quality of his first novel in the descriptions of 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.
The novel seems uninspired by the creative imagination or felt emotion at every turn: the characters lack complexity and their interrelationships are based on minor skirmishes, which only further erodes any dimensionality. If their fishing rights (hence, livelihoods) are being encroached on, they seem petty nitpicking over jewelry instead of strategizing how to get rid of vandals and meth dealers.
He 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. Consequently, they are merely violent descriptions, but not climactic. As a result, the pacing is disjointed and jerky at best.
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 not once does the author render a scene that makes either of these threats 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. One incident merely follows another with no build-up to them, no rendering of conflict, and no repercussions from them. It reads like a TV drama full of action to distract from the absence of plot and character development. At every opportunity, he robs the reader of the chance to actually experience the story and characters.
The author also makes a play for "Literary Greatness" by attempting to tie the novel to KING LEAR; however, 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 interrelationships (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--no contest. 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 a tenuous watershed precariously waits.
The reviewer received an ARC free from the publisher unconditionally based on positive or negative review. The opinions expressed are my own. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
Alexi Zentner is the author of Touch, which was published in a dozen countries. A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, Touch was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award, the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Zentner's fiction has been featured in The Atlantic and Tin House. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his family.
Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.
Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.