Book Review: The Kingdoms, Natasha Pulley

Come home, if you remember.

The postcard has been held at the sorting office for ninety-one years, waiting to be delivered to Joe Tournier. On the front is a lighthouse – Eilean Mor, in the Outer Hebrides.

Joe has never left England, never even left London. He is a British slave, one of thousands throughout the French Empire. He has a job, a wife, a baby daughter.

But he also has flashes of a life he cannot remember and of a world that never existed – a world where English is spoken in England, and not French.

And now he has a postcard of a lighthouse built just six months ago, that was first written nearly one hundred years ago, by a stranger who seems to know him very well.

Joe’s journey to unravel the truth will take him from French-occupied London to a remote Scottish island, and back through time as he battles for his life – and for a very different future.

Oh, my poor bruised heart!

Whilst it took a while to get into, this is a novel which will linger just as long as Pulley’s other time-twisting magical historical offerings.

It is a novel that is bubbling away in my imagination as I sit at the keyboard!

So, we begin in 1898 in an alternate historical setting: the Gare du Roi, Londres, capital of an England that had lost the Battle of Trafalgar ninety-three years earlier and had become a French colonial possession under French rule, speaking French and not yet having abolished slavery. Joe Tournier is our anchor and point of view protagonist, an amnesiac wandering through the railway station lost until a gentleman helped to take him to hospital where he was diagnosed with epileptic amnesia. There, Joe is claimed by his owner and he discovers that he is a slave and married somewhat unhappily to his brother’s widow.

Years pass and Joe is gifted his freedom, acquires a job and receives a postcard posted eighty years previously containing the image of the Eilean Mor lighthouse which had only been completed mere months before – and the gorgeous message

Come home, if you remember. M

Impossible timelines and time slips are part and parcel of reading a Pulley novel – Japanese Samurai who remember all possible futures for so long as they remain possible, a Peruvian chuncho who petrifies into a holy statue, a markayuq, for weeks, months, years at a time – and this is no exception but it remains a puzzle until Joe manages to find an excuse to go to the Eilean Mor lighthouse as an engineer following the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse keepers there.

And this is where Pulley pulls another of her usual tricks: she grounds her novel in verifiable history, because the Eilean Mor lighthouse is real – look here it is!

And what is more, in 1900, there was a genuine mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse keepers there!

The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.

Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago.

I’ve missed you even when I didn’t remember you.

In the world of the novel, there is a mysterious set of pillars in the ocean on the approach to the island. Passing through them transports them to 1807 and the chaos and violence of the Napoleonic Wars – and, when Joe passes through to reach the island and the lighthouse, the ship The Agamemnon and the mysterious burned face of it’s captain, Missouri Kite.

The image on the cover of the novel is so apt because the novel is a spiral of narratives twining around each other: we learn of Kite’s story, of the eponymous ship The Kingdom which had come through the pillars previously and (most of) whose crew were captured including Madeline whose name Joe had remembered; and through it all is the need to discover Joe’s history and identity – and the wonderfully touching relationship between him and Kite.

The novel is mind bendingly complex in its timelines; brutal in its depictions of the conflict of the Napoleonic War; agonisingly tender in its emotions.

And Pulley’s language is often powerful in this novel – more potent perhaps than in some of her others. As changes in the past ripple into the future, shifting realities and perspectives and memories, she describes

“Home was a painting. There was a thinness to everything and sometimes he could see the canvas through it….

Like an oil slick layer, Joe became aware of a new memory. But that oil-slick memory was very very thin. Everything else was still there underneath.”

The image it conjured for me was the palimpsest – and what a gorgeous image, but a terrifying thought that each layer of memory could be overwritten.

It is also powerfully thoughtful – how much would you sacrifice to save a future you never knew? How much is your family, your child worth compared to the impacts of your actions on entire nations and continents? What should you risk to be able to return to a home that may not exist?

I really want to rave about it more, but also do not want to deprive you of discovering a wonderful read! Perhaps all I will say is that it is as good as, if not slightly better than, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.

My biggest problem now is deciding what to read next… although the temptation to revisit certain chapters, to re-read at least parts of this in light of the ending, is definitely going to be high!

What I Liked

  • The novel contains everything you would expect of a Natasha Pulley novel including
  • time slips and time travel
  • wonderfully tender depictions of men who love men and gay representation
  • massive sacrifices for the sake of love
  • The setting during the Napoleonic War, about which I do not feel I know enough!
  • The primarily maritime setting

What Could Have Been Different

  • The first couple of sections did feel a little slow but I implore anyone starting reading this to persevere: it is so worth it!

Overall:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Page Count:

448 pages

Publisher:

Bloomsbury Publishing

Date:

27th May 2021

Available:

Amazon, Publisher

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