• Chai

review: the kingdoms by natasha pulley

Updated: Jul 18

A good book consumes you even as you consume it, and The Kingdoms is a damn good book. It was all-consuming, as engulfing as a fever. Time descended on me, closed over me, and for the space of a few hundred pages, there seemed to be nothing else in the world worth reading. The world was composed of only myself and this book.


To say I was obsessed would be to engage in criminal understatement. After reading, I immediately purchased Pulley’s other books, and recently raced through The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow and The Half Life of Valery K as if someone might take them from my hands at any moment. It’s been months and I still can’t shake the rhythms and cadences of these stories out of my brain. There are treasured passages I still recall, clear as day. Lines that float back to me like bits of poetry. In the end, I am certain—if I may borrow some of Coleridge’s words—that I'd know a Natasha Pulley story if I found it wandering the desert.


Yeah. So. You might think me a bit dramatic. (I do hope you don’t follow this blog for moderate and level-headed engagement with books.) But, truly, the thing is—Pulley has a voice unlike any other. Her storytelling is so distinctive, so utterly inimitable in its style. There is such an intoxicating subtle magic in her books, and I spent the last few hours trying to wrap words around it. So without spoiling anything of what occurs in this novel, this review is my attempt at understanding the strange alchemy that makes up Pulley’s books.

 

Like all Pulley’s books, The Kingdoms is a very slow read, a book that unfolds like a blooming flower, revealing itself in its own time. This is not a novel of spills and thrills, not your regular definition of "page-turner." For a long while, things just happen, and you have no idea why they’re happening or even who they’re happening to. There's nothing that makes sense. There’s only the feeling that something very important is being withheld from you, something within your grasp but desperately out of reach, something lying at the edge of breaking. It's exhausting and it's exhilarating. By the time you realize just how viscerally riveting the story is, how deep it has burrowed within you, a force greater than yourself has already demanded you be anchored, eyes open and eager to drink in every word and not move until it’s over.


There’s a pull, a coaxing, in the mesmerizing assuredness of Pulley’s lines, in the extreme specificity and intricacy of the world, in the intense emotional internality of the characters and the complexe shaping of the time travel narrative. In the sheer texture of longing. Something that compels the reader to complete and utter attention, attention without compromise. But because Pulley's is a greedy oeuvre: it’s not just our attention it covets, it also demands our active participation.


Herein lies the abiding magic of Pulley’s storytelling, I think: that it has a great deal of trust in its reader. Pulley leads us through pathways into her reimagined version of history and trusts that we will follow, that we will pay attention and make the necessary connections. Always, she is careful to remain two steps ahead, giving us just the right amount of information to whip our imagination into a frenzy. The more I read, the more unbearable became my need to know more—and the more I gradually came to notice the strings Pulley is pulling through the frame. In fact, I frequently had to pause my reading of The Kingdoms just so I could think. Twice, I had to stand and walk around my room, too drunk with a mix of excitement and dread to sit still. Sometimes, I would have to put down the book, or hug it tightly to my chest, and let the sheer tenderness of a moment quietly wash over me. All of this culminating in one moment towards the end when everything, like a swiftly parted curtain, abruptly made sense.


And I about lost my goddamn mind.

 

Pulley made something truly masterful here, balancing technique and structure with so much dazzling, ineffable intimacy in a way that makes it impossible not to stop and gawk. The resulting work is a book that you can’t read without wanting to talk about it. A novel with so much to say about war and civilization, trauma and memory, love and sacrifice—and the people caught up in it.


These are all heavy themes, but you should know that The Kingdoms is not a novel without joy. In these pages, Pulley dares to imagine scenes in which violence and tenderness collide, and moments of delicacy—the kind of sweetness that hurt because it couldn’t last and in the next page would be gone—exist amidst unspeakable calamity. The tragedy and senselessness of war, the things that humans can do to one another ; how the trauma we witness and inherit gnaws us through and distorts us into unrecognizable shapes in order to survive ; how civilization can feel so impermanent and fragile, when blood is spilled and cities are burning.


Pulley makes you feel all of these things very deeply. And it is against this indistinct chaos of living that The Kingdoms raises a defiant reverence for the terrible and insistent beauty of love. For in the novel’s center—fiercely kindled, and sometimes secret—is a love story. The story of two lonely and tired and broken men who, in the staring presence of death, find each other and lose each other and find each other again, as if in a cosmic dance. Their story is one of strife and seismic loss, but it is also, heartbreakingly, one of hope buoyed up by the multiplicity of the odds stacked against it and of happiness that is made more so by the improbability of it existing at all.


There is something here that goes right to the heart of things, something offered like a gift—a gift for the reluctant and hungry, those of us who are pushing, each day, through the clot of our ghosts, of the past, haunted by the desire for something left unsaid or unwitnessed, longing still for somewhere else, somewhere beyond, waiting to be carried outward and home.

 

Have you read The Kingdoms yet? If yes, hello, please talk to me, I am bursting at the seams. If not, oh my god, RUN. Run to the nearest library, bookstore, dubious-looking book-dealer around the corner, etc etc... and get a copy of this book, okay? Just trust me.

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