I first read about Rupert Thomson from Maud Newton. She wrote a post about leaving her newly received galley of Thomson's upcoming Divided Kingdom on a plane. Serendipitously, an advance copy made its way across my desk that very afternoon. Trusting her opinion, I decided to take a look. Immediately the premise stood out: Thomson imagines the UK divided into 4 quarters, each corresponding to one of the medieval humors. The Red Quarter is for the sanguine, the Blue Quarter for the phlegmatic, the Yellow Quarter for the violent cholerics, and the Green Quarter for the melancholics. At first you think, 'how hokey!', but Thomson is a good enough writer to pull this off. In fact, I've since read several of his other books and now think he's a brilliant writer. He's not very well know in the states, but I spent most of the holiday season trying to hand-sell this book to customers. When I was picked to nominate a book for the Winter 05 Read This!, I didn't have to think very hard.
The novel begins with the "reassignment," the beginning of this radical social experiment: one night the government removes the narrator from his home and assign him a new one. Each citizen, in fact, is assigned to a new quarter according to their personality. Borders between the quarters are then sealed and guarded. Renamed Thomas Parry, our hero ends up in the relatively powerful Sanguine quarter, where he grows up to be a successful civil servant. Knowledge of the other quarters comes to him only through innuendo and rumors. In fact, contact with other quarters is forbidden, since it leads to contamination.
Trusted by his superiors, Parry gets the job of helping individuals who have been wrongly assessed and move them to new quarters. With this job, he's one of the few with permissino to cross borders and see other quarters. One night in the Blue Quarter, a bomb goes off and he flees in the confusion. He travels through the rest of the kingdom, meeting a diverse cast of individuals. Finally, he returns to the Sanguine quarter as one of the unassigned "White People."
Does this sound too far-fetched? Or too sci-fi for you? One of the wonderful things about Thomson's writing is the way it defies categorization. It's too cerebral for sci-fi, too plot driven for the literary set, too stylistic for those who just want a page-turner. It fits into only one category in my mind: excellent fiction.
February 13th through February 17th will be Divided Kingdom week. We have a podcast of Ed interviewing Rupert Thomson. And we'll be posting according to our humors that week as well. You can discover your "quarter" here.