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Book review: <i>Divided Kingdom</i> by Rupert Thomson



If this was a video game, it would be a free-roaming third-person action-adventure with epic storytelling goals that never really resolve, but you don’t mind too much because you’re half-glad it’s finished and you can stop playing.

Cover

Quite an eye-catching bit of design featuring a rainbow-coloured silhouette on the front featuring (slightly irritatingly) 3 of the 4 animals representing the humours/personality types (see Plot). I can honestly say that I picked this up 2 or 3 times in bookshops before hiring it from the library purely on the strength of the cover—when I got it home I realised I’d actually read something by this author before, but since forgotten his name.

Plot

In the near future, to combat the ever-increasing malaise of its populace, the United Kingdom splits itself into four formal quarters, based on the commonly used psychological personality types (themselves based on archaic medicine’s four humours)—phlegmatic (spiritual and sympathetic), choleric (aggressive and confrontational), melancholic (introverted and intellectual) and sanguine (stable and confident—supposedly the humour of the born leader, and also that of our hero and main character). Our hero, like every other pom, is permanently removed from the society of the other 3 personality types (his parents included) and forcibly relocated into the quarter of the country to which he belongs. He is provided with a new sanguine “family”. Decades later, as an adult, he works for the relocation bureau of the sanguine government, shunting people who have escaped or whose personalities have been reassessed as requiring another movement to a different quarter, work which sometimes occasions his (otherwise illegal) movement through the four territories.

A visit to the phlegmatic quarter leads to an event which unlocks formerly repressed memories of his pre-“rearrangement” life, and this sets in motion an adventure which leads our hero in a risky traipse across the countryside from quarter to quarter and back again, meeting various inhabitants of this new UK along the way, and finally, possibly, with the love of his life.

The good

It’s a great idea, really, and Thomson styles it in the great (and definitely appropriate) UK tradition of Wyndham and 1984—believably bleak, ground-level sci-fi which is all about normal humans put through some world-inverting dice-throw.

The main character’s head is a suitably accommodating place to ride around in, and the descriptive voice fits nicely inside it as he leads us through this reshuffled land, giving familiar elements an achingly small remove—I was especially taken with the retirement cottage of his adoptive family—perched, shelter-less, above vast chalk cliffs, a foot of backyard falling into the sea each year. The “feel” of the cities of each quarter was carefully captured too—from the Venice-meets-London of the phlegmatic district (with the beautifully imagined Bathyshpere nightclub which triggers the main character’s initial awakening), to the high-speed, hair-trigger fireworks of the choleric towns.

Thematically, there’s a lot being suggested here, directly and indirectly; primarily shades of the same larger analogy, being the tendency humans seem to have towards societal paradigms of division, typically those of race and religion. Thomson shows the way this inevitably leads to levels of contempt, ignorance and distrust for “others” that would otherwise be inevitably reduced by day-to-day social interaction, no matter how frictive, and simultaneously serves to inflame the most negative and incestuous elements of a group’s character from within. In an insular religious community, for instance, the apparent unpleasantness of certain aspects of membership, originally at least partly the result of ignorance and misunderstanding on the part of the outside observer, can become inured as articles of faith of the believers themselves in a circular process which eventually makes bad things happen.

Thomson’s clever central conceit of the very observable personality traits makes this easy to see in action, as the cholerics, for instance, are not only protected from the stabilising influence of the other 3 humours, but also become prouder and prouder of their simplistically summarised characteristics of aggression and haste.

You could also say that the division of the country by such means also points towards our own internal divisions along psychological grounds, and the way we partition parts of ourselves and our characters, especially with the aim of fitting in with others. Thomson seems to be saying that this is a fundamentally flawed approach, and any artificially imposed divisions within or without will, inevitably, lead to the cultivation of our worst aspects, and not only toward those we consider “other” but also those inside our tent, and even those we love and trust.

The bad

While I’m still on the subject, I thought that Thomson missed one aspect of the arbitrary divisions which still bedevil our society—the tendency for insulated groups to become not merely caricatures of themselves but the outright antitheses of their conceptual ideals (eg. Communists driving tanks over revolutionaries, capitalists shackling developing economies, hippie communes that turn into middle-class suburbs with free babysitting, etc., etc.).

I think there are two big problems with this book:

A- Thomson starts from the white line with a big simple earthquake of an idea, but he doesn’t have the confidence to make the logical next step, which is to take a step back and let us see what happens to the people on the ground. He can rarely resist telling us something, even if he’s just shown it to us, which he usually has, and he never relaxes his grip on the first-person omniscient enough to let us figure out how much he intends to tell us through the observer, and how much through the setting itself. Thus, the road-movie plotting mixes uneasily with the old-school sci-fi setup because there’s too much see-sawing between the character’s internal journey, the personal journeys of those around him, and the journey of the country as a whole. Two of these elements, well-focused, would have been enough—a great writer could handle three, but Thomson can’t manage it here. What results is that he’s forever either explaining something he’s just shown us, leading us meanderingly from one vague, possibly meaningless encounter to another for no obvious reason other than to shunt the main character around the well-drawn but fundamentally secondary countryside (did he really need to go to each quarter TWICE?) like some half-assed fantasy novel, or showing us the same almost-familiar scenes again and again (border guards, disused roads, walls, moors, cities, repeat). This may be a little unkind—it starts extremely promisingly (the first half is great) and some scenes work very well. Thomson also has an undeniable eye for detail and knows how to surprise us better with character than plotting, I think.

B- He’s bitten off more than he can chew, I think. This idea is so indefinitely expansive that it demands a discipline of detail and scale which I don’t think Thomson can manage, an impression reinforced by the amount of time we spend wandering around about in the windy open, wondering where we’re going next. If the readers are playing “what if” during your whole story and coming up with more interesting answers than the ones you’ve got, I think it’s safe to say that you’ve failed to live up to the promise of your premise.

Call me a pleb but what I thought was missed here was either a faster, shorter book, more confident in its messages (like Day of the Triffids and those old-fashioned world-shakers), or something more inventive—Michael Marshall Smith or Jeff Noon could have taken this idea to some really crazy places, especially on this many pages. It almost feels as though this might have occurred to Thomson himself when, after a pretty tedious 3rd quarter, he suddenly introduces a genuine supernatural element (I’m sure this character is a symbol of some kind but by that point I was too focused on the finish line to care, I’m afraid).

What I learnt

That the 4 personality types were based on the four humours (choleric—yellow bile, phlegmatic—phlegm, melancholic—black bile, and sanguine—blood), and that sanguine was considered superior in some ways, being the most respected (and, one suspects, socially acceptable) humour and one that supposedly bespoke natural leadership ability. So there you go.

In short

Title: Divided Kingdom
Author: Rupert Thomson
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 1400042186
Year published: 2005
Pages: 368

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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