Reviewed by Danielle Simpson
Quite often the best reading experiences I have, or at least the most memorable ones, are stories that are in some way challenging or difficult. This doesn’t necessarily mean difficult in terms of style, as easy reads can be deceptively so, cloaking a story of great complexity or depth in straightforward and unembellished prose. From the very first I knew that Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia was something special and would be a most memorable read, and it has indeed left an indelible mark on me.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia was originally published in 1983 and has recently been reissued by NYRB Classics, which might well give you an idea of the quality of Chase’s writing and the story she tells. It’s an unusual telling having not one single narrator, but four girls speaking in one voice. The novel feels like five interlinked stories that move around in time, often overlapping and covering the same ground or continuing the story yet each slightly independent of the others. Each chapter focuses in some way on different family members. Mostly it is a coming of age tale set on a farm in the American Midwest in the middle of the last century. And while often coming of age stories looking back on childhood tend to be warm and fuzzy, viewed through rose tinted lenses that make the reader feel nostalgic for a past that wasn’t anything like theirs, there is nothing sentimental about this story. Upon reviewing the novel for The New York Times Margaret Atwood called the story “a Norman Rockwell painting gone bad.” I think she was pretty close to the mark in this case.
I should hesitate to share that quote, as the introduction notes that Chase might have taken issue with it, but I think it was meant more as a description than a criticism. In my mind one of the strengths of the novel, what sets it apart and plants it firmly in a class its own, is the fact that Chase has created this wholly realistic and wholly imperfect and yet very human family. She presents many uncomfortable truths and lays bare the souls of these people and they do feel like people and not just cardboard fictional characters inhabiting the pages of a book. I at times loathed a few of these characters or their actions, mostly admired the women, might have steered clear of some of the men, but whatever my reaction, they all made me feel. I can only hope that a writer would find her story a success knowing that a reader had such a visceral reaction to her writing.
One of the strongest characters, curmudgeonly in her old age, is the family matriarch Lil—the Queen Bee or rather The Queen of Persia, or simply Gram as the girls call her. It’s hard to imagine her young and in love, all straight and unbendable lines and sharp edges as she is, but under that cool exterior she loves her five daughters even as she criticizes them. It’s obvious she’s led a hardscrabble existence and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. It’s thanks to her inheritance money that the family farm exists, no matter how powerful a presence Granddad is throughout the story. They are very much a pair since he’s cantankerous and a hard drinker who seems to care more for his animals than any family members. The four granddaughters, Celia, Jenny, Anne and Katie might follow him about but know, too, when to steer clear.
It’s through their eyes that the aunts, parents, and grandparents are revealed and the events narrated. They seem almost interchangeable so close in age are they, but there are distinctions between them, too, two sets of sisters who resemble each other yet have such different personalities. Spending so much time together, living almost in each other’s pockets, there are moments of animosity and anger even a little rivalry yet they move in a pack always together. It’s sometimes hard knowing who is telling the story, hence the collective ‘we’, but the style of narration also helps give a sense of timelessness that is so effectively conveyed. Their role seems more to observe and try to interpret than to participate.
Nothing is too serious or too dark to talk about and experience. Sex and death, the introduction tells the reader, are the opposing forces that move the story along. It’s human nature to be interested in both and from the vantage point of youth it is terrain that is new and unexplored so they fumble around trying to experience or discover the former and understand the meaning and significance of the latter. They watch their aunts and mothers either as single women or in marriages of varying degrees of happiness. Perhaps the one unifying thread that runs through each chapter in some manner is the (and I’m not revealing any more than what is described in the blurb on the back of the book) painful cancer one of the girls’ mothers is dying from. It is this last fact that makes this story at times so difficult to read, yet at the same time it demands the reader’s attention, too.
This is one of those exquisite novels that is full of meaning that requires the reader to carefully lift the lid off and look underneath. The beauty isn’t on the surface but in how the story is told. It is a story that will linger long in the reader’s mind. Even now it lingers still in mine.
Joan Chase won the Pen/Hemingway Award for this novel. It has been compared with two other modern classics, Alice Munro’s The Lives of Girls and Women and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I’ll add two other coming of age favorites, William McPherson’s Testing the Current and Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis. All four are exceptionally well told stories.
Danielle blogs at A Work in Progress and it’s books like Joan Chase’s that remind her what makes stories more than mere entertainment.
Joan Chase, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (New York Review of Books, 2014). 9781590177150, 215pp. paperback