The multi-generational tragedies and mythical creatures that pervaded Alexi Zentner’s lauded first novel Touch move from the woods of the west coast to the waters of the east in his new novel about a legendary lobster fishing family.
Set on a fictional island off New Brunswick supposedly under equal claim by the U.S. and Canada (like Zentner himself), The Lobster Kings tells the tale of the Kings family who have fished its waters for three centuries. In addition to being a fisherman, Brumfitt Kings—the dynasty’s founder—was a painter whose canvases appear not only to have recorded the past but also to have prophesied the future. One of Brumfitt’s claims to fame was that his wife was delivered to him, Venus-like, from the sea, although she came with a dubious dowry: the ocean’s bounty in exchange for every generation’s firstborn son.
Cordelia, the daughter of the family’s contemporary patriarch, a Vietnam vet named Woody Kings, narrates the novel. Having always known the fishing life to be her destiny, in her youth Cordelia had been frustrated by her father’s assumption that her younger brother Scotty was the Kings’ heir apparent. It took the old curse rearing its head for her to be able to stake her claim.
Among the novel’s several flirtations is a dalliance with Shakespeare’s King Lear— Woody’s favourite play and the joking inspiration for Cordelia’s name. But Zentner also sets up parallels his characters don’t see. Woody, our putative Lear, suffers a period of madness in which he violently attacks a poacher and ends up doing a one-year stint at a mental hospital. The name of the novel’s drug-addicted antagonist, Eddie Glouster, echoes Lear’s Earl of Gloucester; Cordelia’s sternman Kenny, the Earl of Kent. Yet the two stories diverge almost as much as they converge—Cordelia’s two sisters aren’t, for starters, false flatterers out to grab an unfair share of their inheritance—so in the end the connection fizzles a bit.
Where the novel gains the most momentum is in its middle register—the salty, vernacular parrying between tough-as-nails Cordelia and novel’s various male characters, for instance—and yet Zentner drops the rope entirely on a dark but promising subplot involving a murder on a ghost ship by members of a rival community with ties to the drug trade.
Its glut of competing influences and unevenness of tone renders The Lobster Kings an occasionally charming but mostly muddled pastiche.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance reviewer and editor