The Lobster Kings|
WW Norton & Company, 344pp, 2014, $26.95 hc
Having idolized a lobstering family's patriarch as a youngster (and still do, though he is long gone) and been taken along with him on his daily rounds as a miniature stern man, I looked forward to this book with great enthusiasm. Zentner gets a lot right. Lobstering is a way of life-- harsh and demanding. On the water, pre-dawn, hauling traps most of the day, unloading the catch, hauling it to market, bringing in and mending damaged traps, maintaining the boat and hauling apparatus (hardly a day goes by that something mechanical doesn't go wrong - salt water is the ultimate corrosive), watching the market for the best price...daily, sometimes hourly. You get the picture. There's not a lot of time or energy left over for personal intrigue or even romance.
The fishing village of the focus family is on an island on the Canadian border...way up there. It's never really warm...days are short, and in this case two large multi-generational families are competing for the catch. One family lives on the island, the other on the mainland. The rivalry is generations long and occasionally erupts in violence. And, among the younger generation, there are drugs...both using and selling.
The island has also traditionally attracted artists and there are tidbits of scandal and tragedy hinted at among this transient population. Our heroine enjoys poking about in the mysteries that surround such romantic characters but she hasn't much time for such frivolities. When her father dies, she will inherit his patriachal position in the community...a first for a female. Her prowess as a lobster boat captain will out weigh her sex. Competence is the most important characteristic for those whose livelihood is earned on the water.
The topography and physical features of the island are well drawn...high promontories with endless views, houses tucked into hillsides, paths and unpaved roads. You can put yourself there. It feels a bit like Monhegan except that the artist contingent is much smaller. They and the less exotic "summer complaints" are viewed as an income source by the natives. Island families double up and rent their houses out.
The action takes place primarily in the patriarch's home, on the boat and at public meetings but interior feelings and suspicions as well as local politics are always in play. And then there's the meth trade...mostly engaged in by the rival mainland family. The plot tightens up a bit with the introduction of that apparently ubiquitous activity but our heroine is only interested in maintaining the lobstering hegemony which she manages quite smartly.
In spited of all the confrontations between the rival fishermen, both on and off the water, the reader is left with a stronger sense of the familial web which surrounds the main characters--which makes the book feel more contemplative than its dramatic setting and the harsh and the exotic way of life of its characters--might lead on the reader to expect.
Idyllic and nostalgic, with just enough illegal shenanigans to provide dramatic tension and a sense of modern times…and enough complicated relationships to involve the reader's emotions, Lobster Kings is a fine summer read.