Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Kings and Queens of Roam

Anyone familiar with Daniel Wallace's Big Fish, his novel that went on to become a delightful major motion picture would recognize his quirky sense of humor, even magic in his newest novel The Kings and Queens of Roam.  The book almost defies description, but I'll try because it's one of the few books I've read, thinking the whole time, As soon as I finish this book, I'm going to have to read it again. 

Roam, the town in which the story is set, is slowly dying. In fact, many of the empty houses abandoned by those leaving as the town's silk industry dries up, are inhabited by the town's ghosts, who spend time waiting for housing by hanging out at the local bar, seen only by Digby, who runs the joint. 

The story centers around two sisters, Helen and Rachel McCallister, descendents of the town's founded, who came, along with a Chinaman he's basically kidnapped for his knowledge of silk-making.  The decision to settle was based solely on the presence of the necessary mulberry trees.

The unattractive Helen lives alone with her blind sister Rachel in their family home after their parents' tragic death, their car running off the bridge on their way to get water they hope will heal their daughter's eyes.  Because Rachel has no idea she is a beautiful as Helen is ugly, Helen decides to "swap faces with her.," convincing her innocent--and dependent--younger sister that people can't bare to look at her.

The odd cast of characters include the descendents of the elderly Elijah McCallister and his "friend and hostage" Ming Kai, whom McCallister had promised to reunite with his Chinese family, bringing instead a substitute wife and children.  Wallace also introduces one of several lumberjacks who return to Roam in the off season, one with a dog he loves but leaves chained up at home.

All the lives eventually intersect when Rachel runs away, thinking she is relieving her sister of the burden of caring for her. Rachel is rescued by a man who is just as dishonest to her as her sister was, in order to keep her dependent on him. 

Simple plot summary of this story, though, completely misses the charm of Wallace's magic.  I found myself lingering over passages, moving on only by promising I'd go back and read again to try to decide just what about the book and its telling captivated me so much. The story and the setting were heavy in fantasy, but the human nature was spot on.

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