The Kingdom Round the CornerOctober 20, 2011
I kind of knew from the first few paragraphs of The Kingdom Round the Corner (by Coningsby Dawson) that it was going to push a significant portion of my buttons, possibly in a slightly embarrassing way. And it does, for about the first hundred and fifty pages.
Lord Taborley leaves the army in 1919 and goes straight to London, where Terry Beddow meets him at the train station in accordance with a promise she made when he left in 1914. The promise also stipulated that they were going to go off and get married immediately, but once he’s seen her and talked to her, he knows he can’t take that bit for granted anymore. And before the afternoon is over he discovers the reason: General Braithwaite, formerly Tabs’ valet — something Braithwaite is concealing. And Braithwaite clearly earned his promotions, and is a reasonably good guy — even though Terry’s infatuated with him, Tabs would probably be okay with him if Braithwaite hadn’t left Ann, the parlormaid to whom he was practically engaged, to think he was dead.
There was a moment very close to the beginning where I thought, “this is a complicated situation. I hope Dawson doesn’t chicken out and make Braithwaite a villain. I hope it stays this complicated.” And he doesn’t make Braithwaite a villain. He makes him an asshole, which is simultaneously not nearly so bad, exactly the same thing, and infinitely more satisfying. And Tabs is self-deprecating in the most appealing way possible when he tells Braithwaite to be honest with Ann, and with Terry, from whom he’s concealing his past.
But then things get even more complicated than I was hoping for, and in addition to Tabs and Terry and Braithwaite and Ann we get Terry’s sister Phyllis’ unfaithful husband Adair, “other woman” Maisie Lockwood, and Maisie’s beautiful sister Diana. And Tabs’ chivalry inevitably turns out to go hand in hand with a deep-seated distrust of woman (because what else is chivalry ever about?) and the whole book goes uncomfortably misogynistic.
The rest is really mixed. I love Tabs’ self-effacing love for Terry, and his mix of optimism and hopelessness, and the way the women around him see him as something special — and kind of throw themselves at him — but I hate the way his casual misogyny is disguised as worship of women (Actual quote: “What purpose did it serve her to be beautiful, if she had no man of her own to admire her?”). I got what I wanted in one of the central romances, but it happened offstage. I knew who Tabs was going to end up with pretty early on, but I wanted to see the relationship grow, and it sprang up from nothing. I spent the second half of the book mostly frustrated, but I also kept getting little bits of things I wanted.
I probably would have been happier if the book was as straightforward as it looked at the beginning, but I also welcome the added complexity. I got more than I expected from this book, mostly in a nice way. I’m just still feeling a little weirded out by the sexual politics.