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Lighting Out for the Color-Coded Territories Rupert Thomson's Divided Kingdom

Rupert Thomson uses an unlikely device – the medieval concept of humors – to divide a population in his new novel.

In 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.

Some of 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.

The children 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.

Yes, that’s 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).

Being a 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.

Perhaps 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.

It’s 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 of self-discovery.

Thomson 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.

In place 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.

It’s a complex scenario, though, despite the broad strokes that define the quarters. As one character tells Parry, the system is based on racism.


“I 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 darkest implication.

“The 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.”

—Review by Charlie Onion

Posted July 1, 2005



About the Author

The author of six previous novels most recently, The Book of Revelations Rupert Thomson was born in England and now lives with his wife and their daughter in Barcelona.



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