King Lear among the lobstermen

King Lear among the lobstermen

A review of ‘The Lobster Kings’ by Alexi Zentner



By Alexi Zentner

When we read an adaptation—a novel whose characters and plot are in some way derived from a previous work—a non-trivial part of our enjoyment often comes from recognition: there’s a thrilling satisfaction in spotting familiar themes, conflicts and characters reimagined in a new context. This is one of the primary pleasures of reading Zentner’s novel, which is loosely based on King Lear.

The Lobster Kings is narrated by Cordelia Kings, the eldest daughter of a moody patriarch on the fictional Loosewood Island, located off the eastern shores of Canada and the U.S., and claimed by both countries. The Kings have reigned here unofficially since 1720, when the island’s first inhabitant, Brumfitt Kings, arrived from Ireland. Cordelia, a lobsterman and self-described “heir to the throne,” is poised to take over from her aging father, Woody, as leader of the community. But she faces a threat from nearby James Harbor, whose lobstermen are encroaching on Loosewood’s waters; worse, some of them are running drugs. There’s domestic drama, too: Cordelia has fallen for her married sternman, Kenny, and clashes with her sisters, Rena and Carly, over the affections of their father.

Here, as in his debut, Touch—a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in 2011—Zentner proves himself a gifted architect of possible worlds. The island is richly imagined, and the Kings’ family history is soaked in mythology. Brumfitt, a painter heralded by art historians for his depictions of maritime life, purportedly married a woman gifted to him by the sea. And a supposed curse brings perpetual dread: the Kings receive the sea’s bounty in exchange for each first-born son. It’s this curse that Cordelia battles, but more than this, she fights its very premise: the notion that sons are more valued than daughters.

Shakespeare’s influence signals the novel’s major concerns—the often-thorny nature of parental love and sibling relationships, the capriciousness of a life’s trajectory—but the book, despite an action-packed narrative and an abundance of trauma, misses the play’s pathos. The novel’s meth-dealing villain, Eddie Glouster, lacks the charisma of the character for whom he’s named, and what’s meant to be a suspenseful climax feels predictable and unconvincing—which is a shame, because Zentner’s fictional island feels uncannily real, a place where more credible battles might be fought and won.



King Lear among the lobstermen

  1. Novel Borrows Heavily from THE FISHER KING by Hayley Kelsey

    Zentner’s second novel, after Touch, is set on fictional Loosewood Island, which straddles Maine and Canada, and revolves around a 300-year-old lobster fishing family tradition named Kings: Father Woody, eldest daughter Cordelia, and her two younger sisters Rena and Carly. Descendants of painter Brumfitt, who, lore has it, married a mermaid, they inherit a family curse that claims the lives of each generation’s first-born son, as occurs when nine-year-old Scotty is swept overboard. Guilty over her rivalry with Scotty, Cordelia blames herself for not looking after him with more vigilance, and devotes herself to trying to fill his shoes as captain and lobsterman. She takes charge when nearby James Harbor lobstermen start poaching the Kings’s waters and drug smuggling to addict the island’s inhabitants. Tough Woody fights back, but at 57 and ill, he only has so much fight left, so Cordelia steps in to avenge the family territory, cutting the enemy’s lobster traplines and discovering a dismembered corpse, which culminates in a piratical shoot-out.

    The theme of leaving and returning to the island permeates the novel: Rena’s husband Tucker does. And the author introduces a romantic subplot when Cordelia’s sternman, Yale-educated Kenny Treat, leaves his wife and the island only to return as Cordelia’s lover. Allusions to Cordelia’s dalliance with an African-American and to Carly’s lesbian partner are obvious set points to give the novel “Politically Correct” elements patently designed to be palatable to contemporary readers.

    The author reprises the strongly mythic quality of his first novel in the descriptions of Brumfitt’s paintings that are interspersed with present-day chapters. But the use of myth here is heavy-handed, clunky, and fails to add dimension to the characters’ history or the plot or to resonate in any way.

    The novel seems uninspired by the creative imagination or felt emotion at every turn: the characters lack complexity and their interrelationships are based on minor skirmishes, which only further erodes any dimensionality. If their fishing rights (hence, livelihoods) are being encroached on, they seem petty nitpicking over jewelry instead of strategizing how to get rid of vandals and meth dealers.

    He fails to lay the groundwork for or build to crisis events and instead springs them on the reader so they occur out of a vacuum, then handily dispenses with them in a truncated narrative so they don’t advance the plot, build suspense, or add character depth. Consequently, they are merely violent descriptions, but not climactic. As a result, the pacing is disjointed and jerky at best.

    The prose is not the least bit evocative, and there’s so little description woven into the scenes that they “float,” leaving the reader confused as to where and when they’re taking place. Because of the dichotomy between the first-person narrator’s educated voice and the narrative voice, which makes liberal use of slang and comes across as folksy but not intimate, Cordelia’s voice is simply not believable.

    Presumably the plot revolves around the threats of off-islanders encroaching on island waters and dealing meth, but not once does the author render a scene that makes either of these threats real to the reader, nor does he provide any evidence that they are, in fact, threats, such as by lost revenue or drug-addled adolescents, so nothing is actually at stake in the novel. One incident merely follows another with no build-up to them, no rendering of conflict, and no repercussions from them. It reads like a TV drama full of action to distract from the absence of plot and character development. At every opportunity, he robs the reader of the chance to actually experience the story and characters.

    The author also makes a play for “Literary Greatness” by attempting to tie the novel to KING LEAR; however, it falls flat largely because his characters and plot are so wide of the Lear theme. Instead, the novel seems to borrow heavily from THE FISHER KING, by Hayley Kelsey, published in 2011. In fact, the similarities, both large and small, are striking: The title, family surname, and storyline (threat to fishing rights; waterman family patriarch resists change, return to island), characters (feisty first-person female narrator, tyrannical patriarch, passive male characters), character interrelationships (rivalry among three siblings), character development (narrator’s guilt for abandoning dreamy younger brother to workplace death; aging patriarch falls ill but resists doctors), setting (island), theme (inheritance of watershed and fishing business, woman tries transcend sexism of physical labor), and literary allusions (Grail Knight).

    But the richly imagined THE FISHER KING is the infinitely better novel–no contest. Not only does it ambitiously address such big themes as overfishing in an era of global trade, who’s responsible for a commons in a free market economy, the competing interests of stewardship v. inheritance, and what connotes possession by posing such questions as who “owns” the sea: the public or watermen who work it and know it best? But the author makes the political achingly personal in the deeply felt and generously evoked very real lives of characters trapped by circumstances (sometimes of their own making) as pressure from a punishing summer drought mounts on an island community and a family to pit brother against brother, and father against son while the fate of the precarious watershed waits.

    The reviewer received an ARC free from the publisher unconditionally based on positive or negative review. The opinions expressed are my own. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.