As a debut novel, ‘Kingdomtide’ has a lot to recommend it. It’s bold and confident without being brash or slick. It experiments with form. It’s brave enough to try and deal with the reality that much of the time we don’t understand ourselves well enough to explain why we do what we do, that some of us find it hard to connect with, or even understand the need to connect with, other people and that our compulsion to judge others exceeds our ability to understand them.
I should be praising all the good stuff in ‘Kingdomtide’. Instead, I find myself hung up on the things in ‘Kingdomtide’ that didn’t work for me. I know that this reaction is in part due to the marketing effort behind the book – wide press coverage, a great cover, and endorsements from Roddy Doyle and Jennifer Egan that make the book sound like a literary achievement, led me to put aside the ‘debut novel’ label and replace it with an ‘accomplished Lit Fic’ label that it didn’t live up to. But there’s more to it than a gap between marketing and delivery. By the time I was halfway through ‘Kingdomtide’ I was getting impatient with it.
Most of the impatience was that based on the fact that one of the two narratives in the book doesn’t work very well. The story of seventy-two-year-old Cloris Waldrip making her way off the Bitterroot mountains after surviving a plane crash that killed her husband and their pilot would make an engaging novel in its own right. Unfortunately, the other narrative reached for something that I don’t think it achieved.
Here’s what I wrote when I was halfway through the book:
The parts with the old lady making her way off the mountain work well enough although her reflections are a little self-consciously of the wisdom-I’ve-gained-by-being-old variety.
The parts with the Park Ranger seem to be trying to be art of the cut-up-a-shark-and-put-it-in-formaldehyde kind.
I quite like the recovering-from-having-divorced-her-bigamist-husband Ranger who drinks Merlot from a thermos all day and describes ‘not being a people person’ as ‘needing to work hard to remind myself that people continue to exist when I’m not with them’.
I could put up with the quirky the Search and Rescue guy who habitually shares too much personal information, asks probing personal questions, constantly attributes strange aphorisms to his dead wife, has a relationship with his teenage daughter that borders on inappropriate and displays sexual preferences that would be politely described as ‘niched’.
What’s trying my patience is the relentless use of a sentence structure like: ‘Eric darted again his eyes to the girl’. It might be funny as a Yoda meets ‘Twin Peaks’ mash-up but I suspect the author sees it as an experiment with the relationship between syntax and semantics.
Anyway, every time we go back to the Ranger, the Search and Rescue guy and his I-see-the-world-so-differently-and-I’m-not-even-eighteen-yet daughter, I keep imagining David Lynch wanting to turn this into a mini-series with an atonal soundtrack, saturated colours and mystical mutterings about the meaning of owls.
I inured myself to the peculiar syntax and waited to see where Rye Curtis would take me.
Having completed the book, I found myself agreeing with Cloris Waldrip’s statement:
‘I do not entirely know what to make of it all.’
It turned out that the journeys of the two narratives shared a landscape but never intersected. I found myself dissatisfied with this. As this was clearly a thought-through part of the novel’s structure I assume the failure to connect has some semantic value. Perhaps it illustrates that real-life has more failures to connect than connections. Perhaps it’s supposed to counteract the tendency of narrative to impose order on a chaotic world. Whatever it was intended to do, the outcome for me was ‘Why did I drag myself through these fractured incidents in the Park Ranger’s journey into joyless isolation if it had nothing to do with the Cloris Waldrip narrative?’ That may be shallow of me but it’s how I felt.
In the end, the Cloris Waldrip story didn’t work for me. It felt too much like a ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ designed to send me a few messages about not judging people. The journey itself was often interesting and surprising but I got tired of Cloris’ ‘I bet you didn’t expect an old lady to have that reaction’ pitch and irritated by her flowery language (is that why she’s called Cloris?) and her determination to avoid contractions at all costs. The final chapters were the ones that kicked me out of the story. It seemed to me that I’d moved from narrative to lecture to ensure that I’d grasped the talking points and takeaways.
Here’s the kind of thing I mean.
Firstly Cloris portions herself for an ‘Aw shucks, we’re all just people’ pitch by describing how she arrived at her world view:
“Just by going for a little walk outside, I set new roads for the wind.”
Then she declares that:
“You get to decide for yourself what you want to believe.”
before launching a defence of Murbeck, a man she met on her journey who she subsequently found was being hunted by the FBI.
“But I do not allow that this man was too terribly different from the rest of us.
As far as I can tell, we sure do all cause a good deal of trouble trying to get what we want.
Yet, whatever uncommon perversion was in him he had some stroke of heroism in him too. Perilling his life for me as he did
The only thing I am certain of is that Murbeck was not evil The only authentic evil I can see in people begins with calling other people evil. Nothing quite makes the sense we would like it to. There are these who just do not fit with the way we have it set up these days.”
I can see that that’s one of the key messages of the book. I’d have preferred not to have it highlighted with a yellow marker pen.
On the first page of the book, Cloris opened her narrative with:
“I no longer pass judgment on any man nor woman. People are people, and I do not believe there is much more to be said on the matter.”
By the end of the book, I understood that this had been a big step for Cloris. She had been raised in a culture that valued the public presentation of good behaviour and thrived on the censure of others. Nothing in her journey led me to understand why she saw totally abandoning judging others or herself as a sign of wisdom rather than weary resignation but at least she expressed herself clearly.
The Park Ranger’s story got stranger and bleaker in the second half of the book.
I liked and felt I understood the Park Ranger. Her journey from trying to be a high-functioning alcoholic searching for purpose and connection to acceptance that she was inadequately equipped for joy and that purpose was self-deception seemed quite credible to me. I think a lot of us feel that at least some of the time.
What I didn’t understand was the cast of characters she was interacting with. They crossed the line from quirky to WTF-land. They weren’t people I believed in. It increasingly felt as if they were figments created in a nightmare. Maybe this was meant to demonstrate the Ranger’s growing recognition of her alienation but I felt it undermined some of the power of the narrative.
All that being said, I’ll still be on the lookout for Rye Curtis’ next novel. The novel held my attention to the end, even when it was annoying me. I’m interested to hear what else he had to say,
I listened to the audiobook version of ‘Kingdomtide’. Each narrative gets its own narrator and both do a good job. It seemed to me that someone had decided to mess with the sound quality of the Cloris narrative to give it a slightly tinny listen-to-that-authentic-old-timey-vinyl sound. I found this distracting but the quality of the narrative was good. Click on the SoundCloud link to listen to a sample.