Flawed fish­ing fam­ily’s tale res­onates

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Sharon Chisvin

FROM the very first page of Alexi Zent­ner’s sec­ond novel, The Lob­ster Kings, it is ev­i­dent that the au­thor is no one­hit won­der. This new work of lit­er­ary fic­tion is as com­pelling, touch­ing and beau­ti­fully writ­ten as his de­but, the Gover­nor Gen­eral Lit­er­ary Award-nom­i­nated novel Touch. As in that ear­lier work, this book re­counts the past and the present of one par­tic­u­lar fam­ily and one par­tic­u­lar com­mu­nity. The fam­ily is the Kings, and the com­mu­nity the fic­tional Loose­wood Is­land, strad­dling Canada and the U.S. off the Mar­itime coast. (Zent­ner, in­ter­est­ingly, is from On­tario but cur­rently lives in New York.) The Kings have been the un­of­fi­cial rulers of the is­land since their an­ces­tor, Brum­fitt Kings, landed there 300 years be­fore. All of the lob­ster Kings are deeply hu­man and deeply flawed. They have con­sis­tently made their liv­ing from lob­ster fish­ing, and al­though it has been a lu­cra­tive liv­ing, it has come at a ter­ri­ble price. That price is al­ways fore­most on the minds of Woody Kings and his el­dest daugh­ter Cordelia, named by her theatre-lov­ing fa­ther in homage to Shake­speare’s King Lear. Cordelia is the story’s nar­ra­tor and pro­tag­o­nist. Drawn to the ocean and to the lure of lob­ster fish­ing since she was a child, Cordelia has spent years try­ing to con­vince her fa­ther that she is the right­ful heir to his wa­ter-bound king­dom. As she con­fesses, “I never wanted to do any­thing other than live here and walk the same beaches and paths... and, girl or not, to head to sea to work like Daddy and his daddy be­fore him, and so on and so forth all the way back to Brum­fitt Kings, Kings of the ocean, lob­ster Kings.” It is this am­bi­tion, al­ter­nately ad­mirable and lethal, that is at the heart of the story that Cordelia tells. It mo­ti­vates her ev­ery deed, de­fines all of her re­la­tion­ships, and puts her at con­stant odds with her two younger sis­ters. It makes her stub­born, strong and im­petu­ous, and it is the rea­son that she so of­ten ends up cut­ting cor­ners and putting those she cares about in dan­ger. This ten­dency to en­dan­ger oth­ers is es­pe­cially ev­i­dent in a sub-plot that re­volves around lob­ster poach­ers and drug smug­glers en­croach­ing on Loose­wood’s wa­ters.

Iron­i­cally, that sto­ry­line, al­though re­plete with mys­tery, mur­der and mayhem on the high seas, is the weak­est part of this won­der­ful novel. The best sec­tions of The Lob­ster Kings are those that look at Cordelia’s re­la­tion­ship with her beloved fa­ther and wounded sis­ters. The di­a­logue they share is pitch­per­fect, and the warmth and af­fec­tion, envy and re­sent­ment with which they treat one an­other is im­pec­ca­bly drawn. Cordelia, the de­voted daugh­ter and is­lan­der des­per­ate to hang on to the people and place that she loves, is the most im­per­fect of them all. It’s that im­per­fec­tion that makes her and the story she nar­rates such a cap­ti­vat­ing read.

Sharon Chisvin is a Win­nipeg writer.

The Lob­ster Kings Alexi Zent­ner Knopf Canada, 336 pages, $30

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