How do you like your prose? If you relished the metaphor-rich, ornately wrought storytelling of Anthony Doerr in his Pulitzer Prize–winning All the Light We Cannot See, then your next favorite writer may well be Taylor Brown. But that’s where similarity between the two authors ends. Brown, who was raised on the coast of Georgia, is steeped in the culture of the South, and his new novel, The River of Kings, feels, in both voice and story line, as layered with history and meaning as the sediment in the banks of the Altamaha, the river where he sets this three-part tale.
Here’s how Brown begins The River of Kings: “The river, storm-swollen and heavy, gleams like a long dark muscle in the earth, a serpent sliding mindless through the yet-bare arcade of river birch and cypress that lines its banks. The two brothers stand motionless over the waters, silent, then haul their kayaks onto their shoulders, bearing them bloodred and blue down the old boat ramp, the concrete scarred beneath them like ancient stone.”
In those two sentences, Brown gives his readers the elements that will unfold as the novel continues: the river—threatening, primeval, animalistic; the sense of lurking history in that scarred “ancient stone”; and the present-day brothers, who, like generations of men before them, paddle the river together. Oh, and Brown’s reference to the “bloodred” kayak: it’s not just “red” for a reason: there’s plenty of blood to come in this book, shed in battle but also beating in the hearts of the two brothers, whose visceral, complicated love for each other runs deep.
Brown tells the three parts of his story in alternating chapters. Chronologically, the first is a fascinating, fictionalized account of an actual French expedition that landed at the mouth of the Altamaha in 1564. The Frenchmen, who are there on the command of their king, Charles IX, hope to find a trade river to the Orient, or at the very least gold. The Europe they’ve left behind is dangerous, too—these Protestants know that they are, at least, safe from the Huguenots, who are massacring their kinsmen in the streets of Paris. What they don’t know, of course, is the danger that awaits them across the Atlantic.
In their party is Jacques Le Moyne, an artist who has accompanied them to document the voyage and the newfound land in drawings. Le Moyne’s status as a professional observer sets him apart from both the aristocratic leaders of the group and the coarse soldiers who must try protect them from the tribesmen they encounter on the shore. The expedition does not go smoothly; Le Moyne’s drawings, however, survive. His illustrations of scenes of human sacrifice, battle preparations, and hunts for deer and alligator grace the endpapers of the novel.
Le Moyne's illustrations on the endpapers of The River of Kings
The second and third parts of the story are set in the present day. They concern Hiram Loggins, a hard-luck shrimper on the Altamaha, and his sons, Lawton and Hunter, who embark on a kayaking trip along the river to scatter his ashes. Hiram has bad luck, and violent instincts. As his younger son, Hunter, says of him, “He didn’t speak his love. But there were things he did hold close. There was the river, for one, more a father to him than any flesh and blood…. In showing us the river—his river—I believe he let us into his heart, at least some part of it. And that’s how I knew we were loved.”
Hunter, who is studying history in college, is the more sensitive of the brothers. Lawton, older and more volatile, is a military man who has seen dreadful things—and done some, too—in Afghanistan. Their picaresque journey downriver gives the two men an opportunity to spar along their old childhood lines and to come to terms with how their father, “who fought every day of his life,” died.
The different plotlines of The River of Kings will appeal more or less to different readers, and some will mourn the absence of fully developed female characters. For the most part, Brown depicts women as seen through men’s eyes. But that shouldn’t diminish the strengths of this novel, which lie elsewhere: in Brown’s extraordinary voice and sensitivity to landscape, and as a book about men among men, with all the violence and loyalty that that entails. It’s Brown’s eyes, really, that bring out what is so rich, enduring, and mystical about the Altamaha, the place where Hiram brings his sons, the place which becomes, to them, as it was to him, a “swampland cathedral” to his particular religion of troubled American masculinity.
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