THE BOOK OF KINGS by James Thackara


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The rise of Nazism and the disillusioning of Europe’s young intellectuals are the primary themes of this inordinately ambitious third novel by an American-born writer long resident in England, where he has published the earlier America’s Children and Ahab’s Daughter. Conflicting stories of a profit-motivated publishing industry and of a megalomaniac author opposed to any tampering with his recalcitrant manuscript (as reported in a 1997 New Yorker article by John Walsh) have dogged the nearly 25-year-long prepublication history of what can arguably be called either a severely flawed major work or Thackara’s folly. It’s an intermittently gripping tale, told in retrospect and set mainly on and near Paris’s Rue de Fleurus (Gertrude Stein’s old stomping ground), where four Sorbonne students variously interact, sample the social and political pleasures of their historic surroundings, and are separately influenced and transformed by gradually accreting evidence of Hitler’s violent alteration of the culture they worship. Scenes occur on other continents also, as Thackara juxtaposes elegant evenings in fashionable salons, eerie glimpses of the Nazi machine assembling itself and wreaking increasing havoc, and (in an imperfectly integrated subplot) Algeria’s struggle for independence from France. The nocel is, overall, quite well constructed—but it’s continually hamstrung by ponderous, sententious (and often ill-written) authorial commentary; it so frequently tells when it should show that the reader’s suspended disbelief repeatedly yields to frustration and boredom. And yet, and yet . . . when Thackara suppresses the sonorous biblical pontificating and concentrates on his characters—especially on the tension between the refusal of David, a German, to comprehend his country’s brutalization and the French-Algerian Justin’s sorrowful surrender of his idealism—The Book of Kings stabs with compelling intensity. Whether one submits to this novel’s undeniable if fitful power or chafes at its infuriating awkwardness, reading it entails both embarking on a unique fictional journey and reaching journey’s end haunted by visions of the book it might have been. (First printing of 30,000)

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1999
ISBN: 0-87951-923-1
Page count: 800pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1999