Monday, January 2, 2012
Book Review: The Kingdom of Childhood by Rebecca Coleman
Author: Rebecca Coleman
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Source: Kindle for iPad
Referral: My friend Sara/crazywomancreek said it was a must read
Books I've read this year: 160!
There are a lot of things I want to say about The Kingdom of Childhood, but if I talk about the thing that is most interesting about this novel, then I'll ruin it for anyone who wants to read it. I'll just say that we generally start off with certain assumptions about a narrator-- that the narrator is a decent, stable sort of person who is trying to tell a story honestly, and when that gets twisted around, like it does in The Kingdom of Childhood, that provides some potential conflicts that can be really interesting.
I'm getting ahead of myself. The Kingdom of Childhood is the story of Judy, a kindergarten teacher at a Waldorf School in the DC suburbs. The story takes place in 1999, in the waning months of the Bill Clinton scandals. Judy looks like everything you'd expect from a kindergarten teacher-- she wears jumpers and talks in a gentle voice, but she's also experiencing a deep malaise-- her kids don't like her much, her husband is outright hostile to her when he's around, and her best friend recently died of cancer. So she copes with the problems in her life by seeking out sex, first in a one-night stand with another choir trip chaperone, and later with a junior in the upper school, one of her son's friends.
While the story itself is uncomfortable (as we see Judy and Zach's relationship get more and more dysfunctional), I found myself torn between enjoying the richness of the details of the story and being put off by the style of the narration. Most of the book is Judy in the first person (which has its own problematic elements and requires some reading between the lines on the part of the reader) but we also get Zach's actions in the third person, and it feels like Judy is observing Zach in these scenes, although it's evident that she couldn't actually be observing him, despite her stalkerish tendencies. Furthermore, we also get a third-person view of Judy as a child, and some of those passages are unclear-- was she abused by Rudy? Did she develop pyromania? Is she as troubled as her mother was? I feel that while the book is supposed to feel unsettling, the narrative strategy reflected that unsettled feeling a little too well.
Overall, I feel that The Kingdom of Childhood was a rich, multi-layered, interesting story about a difficult subject. Coleman knows her stuff. But the book was too troubling for it to be an enjoyable read.