The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

Review by Max Dunbar

A nineteenth-century psychiatrist defines paramnesia as

The blurring of something imaginary and something real. Most commonly, déjà vu; the sense you’ve seen something new before. And its opposite, jamais vu, which is when something that should be familiar feels wholly alien.

When the doctor says this, his patient, Joe Tournier, cries out in recognition: ‘Yes!… Yes, that second one, ever since that man found me at the station!’ 

We all know that second feeling, when something ordinary becomes strange, and I wonder if it’s common to people living under authoritarian regimes, as Joe does. He comes to himself on a train just pulling into London… that’s actually ‘Londres’, because Joe is in a nineteenth century where the French won the Napoleonic Wars. In this reality, it’s 1898 and England is just one more colony of Napoleon’s republic, Joe Tournier just one more slave inside it. Even though well into middle age, he remembers nothing before the train pulled into the Gare du Roi. His wife and child are strangers he must get to know all over again, his past is a mystery. Years go by and nothing returns. 

The only physical trace Joe can find of his past life is a postcard showing a lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides and a cryptic message – COME HOME, IF YOU REMEMBER. When Joe reaches the lighthouse of Eilean Mòr (and it takes some doing) he finds that the island is a spooky place. Winters arrive in a single day. Everyone has tortoises. The lighthouse itself is like an optical illusion – from one angle it’s a proud beacon, from another a crumbled ruin. There are two stone pillars in the causeway with names carved onto them. 

For in Eilean Mòr a portal in time has opened. Joe finds himself shanghaied into the past to fight the battle of Trafalgar all over again, and win it this time. 

It sounds a bit silly – Blackadder in a time machine. But any potential absurdity of the concept is buried under the gravity of events. Joe is conscripted by the mercurial captain Missouri Kite, and life on board his ship is full of the horrors of naval wartime – floggings, drownings, sleeplessness, amputations, annihilation. After each battle, Kite’s sister Agatha (who is also the ship surgeon) goes to tend to the wounded with bandages… or pistols. When too many sailors die, children are drafted in their place. It’s so grim it almost drags. But there is a battle in Edinburgh that is well worth your king’s shilling. And Natasha Pulley seems to capture the lure of the sea. This is Joe and Fred at the ship’s helm:

Because the water was rough, it took two people to hold the wheel. It was hard work, so nobody was allowed to do it for more than an hour, but it was a wonderful hour. Fred showed him how to correct the course on the compass, and how, even once you’d moved the wheel, it took the ship twelve or fifteen seconds to start swinging in the direction you wanted. By the time their hour was up, they were soaked and laughing, and in a flying rush, Joe understood why all these people had signed up for such a wet, miserable, dangerous life.

We’re used to research-heavy historical novels (the Culture Secretary, raging against woke arts, may want to take solace in contemporary English fiction, which seems stuck in the more respectable parts of the English past) but there’s a narrative grace to The Kingdoms that makes it better than most. As we get to know the characters, the terror eases off. Missouri Kite is a monster, but a human monster that war has made. He is so a creature of the navy that he feels nervous on dry land, because the ground isn’t rolling. The time travel conceit even begins to make sense because you realise how advanced technology was at the end of the nineteenth century compared to the beginning. (Sail to steam was a big development in Conrad’s time; Kite doesn’t seem to like it either.) And there is a love story that is not the expected love story.

And Pulley makes a marvellous imaginative reach into the impact that time travel could have on human psychology and memory. The blurring of something imaginary and something real – an aspect of paramnesia, and also one of a terrific novel.

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Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com

Natasha Pulley, The Kingdoms (Bloomsbury, 2021). 978-1526623119, 436pp., hardback.

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