Reviewed by Lizzie Gheorghita
Daniel Wallace fans, count yourselves lucky. The Birmingham native’s forthcoming novel, The Kings and Queens of Roam, echoes the passion for mythology and adventure first evidenced in Big Fish. Wallace illuminates the rich history of a fictional land rife with burly lumberjacks, Chinese immigrants, feral dogs, and ghosts, and seamlessly melds fanciful and imaginative elements with striking truths about the human condition.
Kings and Queens begins with the taut yet enchanted tone of a grown-up fairy tale replete with the mesmerizing twists and turns of plot for which Wallace is known. Wallace establishes his story in Roam, “a small settlement lost somewhere in a blanket fold of American terrain, between a range of mountains, a light in the forest, a sudden something in the middle of an infinite nothing—it doesn’t matter anymore.”
You learn the eerie history of Roam’s beginnings: Two hundred before, Elijah McCallister founded the town after kidnapping a Chinese man and forcing him to reveal the secrets of the lucrative silk trade. The men became business partners, and Roam flowered from the economic fruits of the silk industry for decades. By the time we arrive, however, Roam has become a decrepit shadow of its former self, a tired town of 227 citizens plagued by a grim malaise.
This stifling sensation takes human form in Rachel McCallister, the great-granddaughter of Roam’s founder. Blind since the age of three, she embodies all that is Roam: disorientation, deprivation, alienation. But despite her circumstances and lineage, she’s sweet and beautiful, with the face of an angel and eyes the color of honeybees. She’s held in stark contrast to her older sister, Helen, who has been ugly, inside and out, since birth. Kings and Queens follows the complex relationship between Helen and Rachel. Rachel depends on Helen to navigate reality, and Helen, jealous of her young sister’s beauty and popularity, turns Rachel’s world into a dark place.
To read Kings and Queens is to be emotionally strung along in a situation far more sadistic than anything you’ve read Wallace’s previous books. When beautiful Rachel asks Helen, “What do I . . . look like?” Helen jumps at the chance to mess with her sister, explaining delicately that people hate looking at her unsightly face. And there’s no holding Helen back once their parents die. Not knowing any better, Rachel eats up her sister’s lies, believing Helen to be the only one protecting her from a cruel world. Thus, it’s easy convincing Rachel that she has a face that looks like a bunch of faces stuck together; that the only way out of Roam is filled with a thousand flesh-eating birds; that Helen has given up everything to be Rachel’s primary caregiver and guardian.
No longer able to bear the guilt of her sister’s sacrifices, Rachel runs away to the forest on the outskirts of Roam and is found half dead. Forest dwellers restore her back to life, and the rural retreat offers Rachel a welcome respite from her sister’s cruelty. However, her time in this green world is not an entirely carefree, prelapsarian vacation—she works and toils and struggles just like everyone else. What’s worse is when the man who falls in love with Rachel selfishly deprives her from the magical springs that could heal her blindness, and she finds out about it.
He had become the man he never thought he could be….A secret doesn’t feel wrong until it’s discovered, and he felt it, every dark scrap of shame. One last glance from her, knife-sharp, and she pushed past him, knocking his shoulder to one side with the power of a man. He stumbled, but it was his grief that made him fall to his knees.
You know as well as Rachel does that it’s time for her to run away again. This time, it’s back to Roam.
Meanwhile, you’ve been allowed a glimpse into Helen’s soul, who couldn’t live with herself as soon as she discovered Rachel’s absence. Her search party yields no results:
‘“Rachel!” Helen yelled as loud as she could. “Rachel!” . . .
There was of course, no answer, because she was likely dead and she couldn’t answer. But even if she were dead they needed to find her body. Helen was not going to leave it out there for the buzzards. To think of her sister facedown at the bottom of that ravine tore a fissure through her heart.
This unprecedented remorse marks a turning point in Helen’s character. It’s safe to say that throughout Rachel’s time in the woods, Helen cultivates an endearing personality inspired by her sister’s lifelong sweetness—which, coincidently, turns out not to be lifelong. (Wait until she regains her eyesight…)
Decidedly tense moments string you along until the end, which is mildly adrenaline pumping (one recalls triumphantly reaching the end of Moby Dick after one-hundred-and-thirty-two chapters of patiently waiting for the man-beast smackdown). You’ll find yourself covering the next page to keep your eyes from skipping ahead.
But as soon as the action gains momentum, the novel ends. And while it’s not what you expect, its originality is striking. Wallace succinctly wraps up the novel in an enchanted, surreal way that truly befits a book as well-crafted as this one and his writing style as a whole. In a way, (to borrow from one of the sweeter moments in the novel) Wallace leaves you wanting to “Make a world all your own. A new one. A world no one has seen before, no one has even imagined. Make it beautiful. Make it good.”