27 of 38 people found the following review helpful
All Air and No Fire,
This review is from: Divided Kingdom (Hardcover)
Five and a half years is the longest gestation period for a Rupert Thomson novel yet, and a tantalising delay for fans of his previous erudite, original, imaginative fiction. On reading however I can only feel that the delay was due to lack of inspiration, because this is easily Thomson's worst book since The Five Gates of Hell and possibly his worst ever.
The idea is an intriguing one: the United Kingdom has become the divided kingdom (although I never picked up on the pun or association of the two phrases until it was explicity mentioned in the text), the government having become tired of thuggery, brutality and conflict within our land. It decides to divide the country into four, separated by guarded walls and peopled according to personality type: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic (linked to the old anatomical idea of the four bodily humours of yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood). Our hero is designated sanguine, and is taken away from his parents at the age of eight or so, and given a new name and a new family in the Red Quarter.
I enjoyed the first hundred pages or so, although a few problems were evident too, mainly Thomson's attempted portrayal of a period of ten or fifteen years in a matter of a few dozen pages. With no chapter breaks or proper pacing, it doesn't seem to make sense, particularly as the rest of the book will cover just a few months. The relationships between Thomas Parry - our hero's new name - and his new father Victor and sister Marie are well done, although I did find myself wondering why he never once pined for his real parents whom he had known for almost ten years.
When Parry goes to work for the government, however, the whole thing just falls apart. Thomson has no ideas for a plot other than to explore the four different quarters - five if you count the lives of White People, who are designated none of the four personality types and so live on the fringes of society - which leads to squeaking of crowbars as he puts Parry on a plane to the violent Yellow Quarter for a conference, then a randomly placed (by the author) bomb infuses Parry with an anarchistic vibe - even though his personality surely decrees that this would not happen - and he decides to slope off to the Blue Quarter, where the Phlegmatics live. Because this is the least well-defined personality type, Thomson makes it associated with water instead, for an alternative theme, and the whole thing starts to feel like an episode of The Crystal Maze. Then a shipwreck lands him in the melancholic Green Quarter, and so on. Presumably the idea is that Parry's - and everyone's - personality is not immutable but is actually influenced by their surroundings.
By halfway through I was fed up to the back teeth with Divided Kingdom and it seemed for a time to be the most putdownable book I have ever read. After toiling at its pointless paragraphs for what seemed like hours, I had only passed ten pages. There are no other characters in it who stay long enough for us to get to know them, until Parry meets a young woman near the end when I was past caring. There are shifts of scene and tone so sudden that I started to wonder whether it was supposed to be a dreamscape, like Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, or something similar - and indeed Parry at one point wonders whether he died at the start of the book and everything that happened since has been his death - but in the end it appeared more that huge chunks had been chopped from the book, maybe half the original text in all, to make it more digestible - without success - but wildly compromising the coherence.
It feels like kicking a man when he's down to say all this - after all, Thomson has shown from his other books that he's a talented writer, and he's protean and interesting enough to deserve a break into the bigger time (read The Insult and The Book of Revelation for proof of this) - but you've got to trust your judgement in these things, and mine is that Divided Kingdom stinks like a five-and-a-half-year-old dead turkey. At last, I feel sure, Rupert Thomson will find critical and public opinion united, though perhaps not how he would hope.
In a recent interview Rupert Thomson said that Divided Kingdom is a real break from his other books as "it's the only book I've written than anyone could read." Is that an insufferably pompous statement or is it just me? In fact his other books are far more readable than Divided Kingdom. What he should have said of course is that it's the only book of his that anyone could write.