Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new, smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
The River of Kings
St. Martin’s Press, 2017, Pgs. 336
By Taylor Brown
Local literary luminary Taylor Brown’s eagerly anticipated new novel, “The River of Kings,” hit the shelves on March 21. Brown, a devoted writer and overachiever, seems to have decided that, instead of sliding into a sophomore slump with his second book, he would write two books in one.
“The River of Kings” follows two separate story lines, set apart by 450 years, and takes place in and along the Altamaha River. It is an ambitious work that surprises and enthralls readers at every turn.
In present day we meet two brothers, Hunter and Lawton, out to paddle the river for a final journey with their father’s ashes. Through them, we follow their sojourn and slowly unravel the mysteries surrounding the tragic figure now reduced to ashes and stored in a box, strapped to one of their kayaks.
Concurrently, Brown introduces his audience to the first European explorers to settle and fortify the area in 1564. Using Jacques Le Moyne’s eyes as the artist attached to the expedition, the book blends black-and-white reproductions of Le Moyne’s work with Brown’s fictionalized retelling of the events.
It is a true testimony to Brown’s skill, how he weaves together seemingly unrelated threads to create such a lustrous literary tapestry. How do these two narratives entwine? With captivating subtlety.
I frequently describe “Fallen Land,” Brown’s first book published in 2016, as if James Cooper’s “The Last of The Mohicans” meets Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.” That is, of course, a simplification, but there are elements of both books which call to “Fallen Land” characters and struggles. However, “The River of Kings” is a rare book that seems to evoke conversation with authors across genre, discipline and time. Obvious comparisons arise with Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
Hunter and Lawton are locked in a relationship so deep and tangled, with a father neither of them understood, that words are not relevant for them. It defies language. The challenge for a writer is to illustrate this without a crutch of self-revelatory dialogue that sounds like something from a post-Freudian armchair psychologist. So Brown sends them on a journey, not of a lifetime but of three lifetimes. What they find isn’t what they were looking for, and it changes them irrevocably. It’s terrifying even for the uber-macho Lawton, who is so proud of his work with Special Forces.
Like “A River Runs Through It” and “Heart of Darkness,” the real lead character in “The River of Kings” is the Altamaha River. Brown clearly loves this part of the world, and describes it with such painstaking and heartfelt awe. But Brown’s book is more than just an exploration of one river, or one confused and tangled family relationship. With Le Moyne’s narrative, Brown explores the painful and terrifying reality of a New World. Elements of James Michener’s “Chesapeake” and Inglis Fletcher’s “Roanoke Hundred” leap to mind. “Chesapeake” is a beautiful celebration of place, as only Michener can create. Though Michener is not a writer known for beauty of language or artful turn-of-phrase, he writes odes of devotion to place through the lens of his characters—and he loves showcasing people displaced by Eurocentric history.
Brown’s choice of a French expedition into the New World—a story we frequently hear from an English settler’s perspective—and their encounters are fascinating. He speaks of not a tribe of natives, rather whole nations of people, who form and break alliances with each other and the New French. We watch in horrified fascination as the sandy ground beneath the feet of the French shifts both geographically and politically.
Fletcher, the Carolina Chronicler, brought the fate of the 100 men from Cornwall who survived for a year on Roanoke into powerful focus with “Roanoke Hundred.” She illuminates desperation of people forced to ask questions and act upon circumstances they never thought possible. Brown’s graphic description of the starving French will stay with the reader for months. In an odd complement to Brown, the starvation scenes actually made me lose my appetite for a couple of days. Both Brown and Fletcher pit their characters against insurmountable odds. However, while Brown has written a much grittier and probably realistic novel, Fletcher makes her characters heroic. Brown makes them frightening—even to themselves.
The inclusion of reproductions of art made during the French settlement elevates the experience of the older story line and the entire sense of apprehension surrounding the journeys depicted in “The River of Kings.” If I could pick one word to describe this book from beginning to end, it would be “intentional.”
Readers who pick it up will understand why.