the chilling opening of Rupert Thomson’s Divided
Kingdom, a boy named Matthew Micklewright is
taken from his family and placed among a group of
children – aged five to eighteen – who
have likewise been separated from their families.
They are given gray blazers with a scarlet peacock
embroidered on the breast pocket. Eventually, their
names are nullified.
the boys don’t survive the abrupt transformation.
“These were the early casualties of the Rearrangment,
as it was called, and they were seldom spoken about,
and then only in hushed tones in some distant corner
of the garden, or in bed at night once all the lights
had been switched off,” Thomson writes.
soon learn they are pawns in a vast experiment.
Faced with high crime and divorce rates, racism
and homelessness (among other woes), the government
has decided to divide the country into four autonomous
republics, each of which will be filled with people
who share personality traits.
right: personality traits – but not the sort
we today might recognize. Instead, the country’s
inhabitants have been secretly examined and classified
according to the medieval concept of the four humors:
yellow bile (marked by aggressive qualities), black
bile (melancholic), phlegm (empathic and sluggish)
and blood (optimistic and good-natured).
relatively cheerful child, Micklewright has been
dubbed sanguine and thus comes to live in the Red
Quarter. In time, Micklewright is renamed Thomas
Parry, and he is assigned to be the son of a man
whose wife had been removed to another quarter.
The man’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Marie,
has remained with him.
inevitably, Parry falls in love with his new sister,
but Thomson passes over that potential story for
something bigger in scope. After a largely uneventful
childhood, Parry attends college and is given a
government job as an assessment officer. All indications
are that Parry will settle into an anonymous if
successful civil servant’s career until he
is awarded a trip outside his quarter.
simply a conference among like- and different-minded
bureaucrats, but on a whim, he visits a strange
club and finds a small awareness of – and
a need for – the self he had been before the
Rearrangement. When a bombing in his hotel conveniently
causes a distraction, Parry flees into the countryside
to start his life anew – and finish his journey
is an exceptionally strong writer, and he is confident
with his material. But readers expecting an emotionally
intense, Orwellian novel to follow that admittedly
Orwellian opening will be disappointed – or
perhaps relieved, depending on their appreciation
for politically heated fiction. Instead, Thomson
pushes his novel at a surprisingly leisurely pace
after the tense opening; it keeps readers from knowing
where Thomson is going with the story.
of political heat, Thomson gives us a series of
sometimes amusing and sometimes disturbing scenes
that drift by slowly enough for us to take in their
workings. It’s especially fun to watch Thomson
milk the potential offered by the odd personalities
segregated into their quarters. The citizens of
the Yellow Quarter are markedly violent; those in
the Green Quarter are prone to suicide; and the
Blue Quarter is notable for its religious groups
and nonviolent protests.
a complex scenario, though, despite the broad strokes
that define the quarters. As one character tells
Parry, the system is based on racism.
don’t mean the old racism. That’s
dead and gone. I’m not interested in the
colour of someone’s skin. It’s their
thoughts that bother me. The new racism is psychological.
What’s strange is, we seem to need it—to
thrive on it. If we don’t have someone to
despise, we feel uncomfortable, we feel we haven’t
properly defined ourselves. Hate gives us hard
edges. And the authorities knew that, of course.
In fact, they were banking on it. They force-fed
us our own weakness—our intolerance, our
bigotry. They rammed it down our throats….They
took the worst part of us and built a system out
of it. And it worked—”
Ultimately, it’s often the faceless people
of the divided quarters who are most threatening,
not the state. After all, once its system of psychological
racism is self-perpetuating, the state can take
a step back and lets the citizens do the policing.
And that, in the end, may be Divided Kingdom’s
special substance that makes each of us unique is
finite, ethereal,” Parry tells us. “It
can be whittled away, almost without us knowing.
It can be used up altogether.”