Like his first novel, Touch, The Lobster Kings showcases Alexi Zentner’s penchant for storytelling.

Knopf Canada, 2014

Knopf Canada, 2014

Readers who learn that this novel is a retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” might expect the tale to distance readers, with the original story centuries old and memories of stilted readings in school or black-and-white films working against its relevance.

There is perhaps a sense of out-of-time-ness for the story, the setting a small fishing village, its island setting further removing the events from the recognizable for contemporary urban readers. Nonetheless, although the setting is a vitally important element of the story, vividly drawn and sensorily rich, the themes transfer readily to this modern retelling.

The territories of fishers in a world which has recognized too late the value of sustainable food production make a thriving conflict not only credible but inevitable.

“‘’What do you think, Cordelia?’ he said as he hauled open the door of the diner. He paused, glancing in the diner to make sure everybody was paying attention, and then looked back at Rena and me, his voice loud enough to carry both inside and out. ‘We’ll encourage the James Harbor boys to get out of our waters, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll go to war.’’”

The storyteller’s voice is assured and the device openly acknowledged, which adds a playful tone to the work, this modern Cordelia an updated version of the character insisting on her rightful place on the boat.

“Cordelia. Straight out of Shakespeare, and god thank my mother for exerting at least a small amount of restraint on Daddy for the rest of the children. Cordelia. The name was my father’s idea of a joke. We were the Kings, and so he’d give me the name of the king’s favourite daughter, the one banished but true. When I finally read the play, my junior year in high school, I went up to my father in a huff, pointing out that the play ended with me dead.”

The Kings family is haunted by loss. The backdrop of tragedy echoes Shakespeare’s story delicately but deliberately. Brumfitt Kings’ paintings bring that off-the-page so convincingly that readers will be inclined to look up the works online.

“The series probably wouldn’t have been considered so important if the dates and the events hadn’t lined up so neatly with Brumfitt’s own life: his oldest son died at the age of ten, in December of 1739, his boat overturned in a storm, his body broken against the rocks. The first Kings boy taken by the sea.”

(In the same way that I, as a young girl, longed for my favourite storybooks to be made into films – before I realized that that would only be satisfied if I was making the film based on my own interpretation of the story – I long to see Brumfitt Kings’ paintings on canvas. I, like the tourists in the novel, would travel to Loosewood Island to see the vantage points depicted in the artworks I would have found in galleries around the world; I would dream of discovering a treasure chest with his lost works inside.)

The novel is told from Cordelia’s vantage point. Although unflaggingly loyal to her father, she is not quite the blindly devoted daughter of Shakespeare’s play; an experience in Cordelia King’s younger years has allowed her to view her father not only as her father but as a man stressed and strained by the demands of life. (This scene of her realization haunts me still.) This perspective on his humanity affords her a degree of objectivity which allows her to be as dutiful as her namesake without crossing the line into too-good-to-be-true.

This kind of subtle machination is what makes the mythic elements of the novel work so well too. In some respects this is simply elemental. It is not a stretch, for instance, for readers to accept that a fishing family would have an almost sacred connection to the water.

“I like to think of it as something else, something mythical and primal, like the sea just pulls at me and will never let me go. We’re connected to the earth and the earth is connected to the sea, and once you’ve had a taste of the ocean—if you’re a true child of the ocean—nothing can keep you away.”

But Alexi Zentner takes readers across a line, affords them the opportunity to imagine beyond the ordinary. These instances have a sensory basis – characters are generally practical, sometime even scientifically-minded – but they contain possibilities.

“My favourite picture of Brumfitt’s wife is probably Marriage Bed. It’s dated from the first year of their marriage. Brumfitt’s wife’s hair is splayed down her naked back, the sheets billowing and creased around her lower body, leaving an amorphous shape below her waist that Daddy thinks looks like a mermaid’s tail. I’m not sure that I agree with Daddy, but there is something else in the picture that makes me think of the selkie myth instead: pushed partially under the table is a stool, and on the stool is what appears to be a coat made of sealskin. Maybe Brumfitt stole her skin, but loved her enough to offer it back. And maybe she loved him enough that she didn’t take it up, loved him enough that she refused the gift of her skin returned, loved him enough that she let him keep her skin, let him keep her bound to Loosewood Island, bound to Brumfitt Kings.”

The extraordinary is invited to take its place in the tableau, perhaps not in the foreground (the skin is on a stool, pushed partially under the table) but alongside the everyday.

What is most remarkable about this novel is the balance between its moving parts; the setting, the characterization (not only of Cordelia but the supporting cast as well), and the story (divided into five parts just as “King Lear” was written in five acts, but feeling all-of-a-piece) are consistently well-drawn. What makes it succeed as a whole is the confidence and style of the storyteller’s voice.

The Lobster Kings is a tremendously satisfying read, which will particularly please readers who enjoy retellings (Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres and Priscila Uppal’s To Whom it May Concern, among others) but it is a novel worthy of being read in its own right: a tale of Kings.

IFOASmallBadgeAlexi Zentner will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.