I’ve said it before, but I can’t stress it enough: Rupert Thomson writes nightmares.
He takes all the things humans dread and want the most, shuffles them together like so many cards, and deals them out on the page in some of the most straightforward but stylistically beautiful prose you’ll come across. What’s more, he knows how to keep a story moving.
Thomson isn’t read widely in the States because, frankly, he’s too good — too innovative. More psychological and linguistically striking than the stories that appeal to fans of pure genre fiction, unduly plot-focused for those worship at the altar of the small, ambling literary story, his books defy categorization. So (despite raves from the likes of Michiko Kakutani) U.S. publishers don’t know quite how to pitch him and the host of American readers who might join me in devouring his books whole don’t even know his name.
Amid the personal sorrows of last week, an advance copy of Thomson’s latest book, Divided Kingdom, arrived.
What comfort! What joy! What better way to pretend I didn’t have to see my father in less than 24 hours?!
I took the book with me to the airport and started reading on the plane. In the opening pages, the narrator, a young boy, is torn from his home in the middle of the night as part of a new plan to reorganize Britain in accordance with the four personality types, or humors, identified long ago by Aristotle (and coincidentally embraced by my mother in my childhood thanks to Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame). His parents stand in the street, barefoot, and watch him go.
After holding the boy in a sort of programming camp for the chosen people (the sanguine types) the authorities reassign him to a different family. He lives with a new sanguine father and sister but fights a sexual attraction to the sister and ultimately enters into a questionable deal with the authorities to keep his adopted family safe. (Anyone evincing personality traits out of keeping with his or her assigned “humor” is subject to deportation.)
As I read, I crowed about the novel to Mr. Maud, sharing excerpts, making him promise to read it, offering assurances that he’d enjoy it as much as I was, if not more. (Believe me, given our different tastes, I rarely force my books on him. The last one he read at my insistence was Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, and he ate it up. But let’s not discuss how wrong I was about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.)
I briefly considered trying to wrest control of the P.A. system from the flight attendant so I could read to my fellow passengers, but it’s a post-9/11 world and I don’t want to die. I stayed in my seat and read to myself (and sometimes Mr. Maud) until I reached page 130 or so.
Before we landed, I slipped the book in a bag and placed it under the seat in front of me. Then we disembarked. And I left the book there. I realized what I’d done as we boarded the next plane, and I
threw a biting, bucking tantrumkept up a high-pitched, running whine for the next two and a half hours.
Anyhow, I can’t bring myself to impose on the poor publicist at Bloomsbury UK for another copy — she sent it because I plan to interview Thomson for this site next month, but I think it’s pretty unorthodox to ship books overseas for attention from a rinkydink operation like this one — so I’ve ordered a copy at approximately a million dollars from Amazon UK.
Now I just wish the damned thing would ship early (it’s not officially published in Britain until April 4). I’ve only been checking every three minutes. That’s not excessive, right?