I’d never heard of Joan Chase’s novel: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, and while the title caught my eye, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the content. This was a case of trying the book simply because of the publisher, New York Review Books, and after ending this magnificent tale, I can easily predict that it’ll make it to my best-of-2014 list.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is set in the 50s and concerns the lives of a three-generational matriarchy with Gram at the top, her 5 daughters and 4 female cousins: Celia, Jenny, Annie and Katie. The title has an edge of irony, as the ‘Queen’ is a not an exotic figure, but a tough Ohio woman who in one scene throws a tin can at her retreating husband while yelling “horse-piss. shit-face.” Still, Gram, a woman whose early life was miserable until she inherited money, in definitely in charge, and she does what she wants:
“The way Gram told it was that all she had ever had in life was kids and work and useless men and what she wanted, and had earned besides, was to be left alone.”
The story, divided into 5 very specific chunks of history, is told collectively by the 4 young cousins. It’s impossible to tell which girl is the narrator, and identification defies logic. I tried to narrow the choice in the first section, and thought I’d nailed it, only to be trumped in the other sections. The result of this unusual, superb narrative style is that the reader intuits that the thread of the story is childhood, and its fluid narration transcends a specific character or a single version of events. Instead we have the collective experience of four young girls as they witness, respond to, and try to make sense of the tumultuous lives and the messy world of adults. The collective narrative occasionally acts as a chorus of experience as in this section which follows an episode with one of Gram’s son-in-laws, ne’er-do-well Neil, as he symbolically reestablishes his male dominance over females through a strange, sadistic ‘game’ that takes place with his two daughters (Annie and Katie), and two nieces (Celia and Jenny):
We four climb up into the haymow, up to the rafter window. We vow we will never forgive him. We swear to avenge ourselves, even if we have to pay with our lives. We tell each other how he’d feel if we died. Dry-eyed, exhausted at last, we lie in the sun-shot darkness of the barn, and the soft cries of the doves seem to be the sound of Neil’s grief when he knows that he has lost us, when he views us, innocent girls, cold and still in death.
We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies. after our dip, cool, absolved, we lie upon the bank, brushed dry by the coarse grasses, which hold a mosaic of daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.
While each of the sections covers some specific, non-sequential events in the history of the family, common threads appear throughout the book: the unreliability of men, the treachery of sexuality, and the importance of the female hive. Women dominate the story, and most of the men in the story are feral–either on the periphery or drifting in and out periodically, causing trouble. The book’s first section, appropriately called Celia introduces the multi-generational family as it describes Celia’s explosive entrance into puberty which begins with the appearance of a “pack of boys” who hang around “with a patient wistfulness.” Celia’s burgeoning sexuality sprouts a series of inappropriate lectures from her mother, Libby.
“Don’t think I don’t know the charms of young men,” Aunt Libby said, and we knew she did; beautiful again, a trace of blood spurting from her cold heart, illuminating the texture of her skin, warming yellow to gold. And her eyes softening like a melting amber. They hardened again. We trembled to hear her. In Aunt Libby there was none of Gram’s flip “You may as well fall for rich as poor.” For Aunt Libby it was a matter of outrage and contest.
She spoke incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or engulfed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babies–stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble.
Nor would Aunt Libby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn’t want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. That she attributed to liquor–which men turned to out of self-pity and petty vengeance.
Even Rossie, a young male cousin, is a destructive, disruptive presence for the duration of his unsettling visits, and significantly he never integrates with his female cousins. Rossie, as a male child, cannot penetrate the world of his female cousins, and after the death of one of Gram’s daughters (in spite of the best efforts at intervention by a Christian Science sibling) we see that according to Uncle Dan, the exclusion of males continues beyond the grave:
Gram had refused to pay for that kind of burial. She had said she wasn’t going to get mixed up in any heathen ways when not a bit of it meant anything anyhow. “She’ll lay up there aside of me, where she belongs,” Gram said then. granddad was already there, on top of the hill at the cemetery, and Gram had bought plots for herself and her five children. “I don’t know what the rest of us are supposed to do,” Uncle Dan had said. “Just wander, I guess. Outside paradise.”
For most of the book, two men are residents at Gram’s Ohio farm; there’s Gram’s husband, Granddad, a surly man who takes care of the cows, and whose relationship with the rest of the family is restricted by his own resentful, anti-social behaviour, and Dan, the husband of Gram’s daughter, Libby. Dan, a butcher, the father of Celia and Jenny, and one of the book’s most stabilizing forces, who never meant to stay at the farm for long, appears to have made some sort of pact with his wife which included the return to the farm and leaving California behind. Dan, “the surviving male figure” for part of the novel, surrounded by women, is affable and easy-going–although he does have a brief rebellion through the purchase of an outdoor swing which represents his longing for California.
There was one memorable fight; it lasted two days. Uncle Dan came home with groceries and a flowered lounge for the yard or porch and Aunt Libby hit the roof the second she saw him unloading it, yelling from the window, “we can’t afford that kind of thing. you have no business. What would we do anyway with a thing like that?” Going on to tell Uncle Dan that he was forever needing some new trinket for amusement. When would he ever grow up? And when had he ever had a spare minute to lay in the sun?
“In California,” he said, as he worked to adjust the mattress, “they’re set up for this kind of thing. They don’t mind a little fun. A fellow works all his life. What’s the harm?” His face looked as though it had rained all his summers, his eyes gray from clouds that had passed over his heart.
Aunt Libby’s voice spurted anger and something of alarm too. “You! You have an uncontrollable notion to lay in the sun. What are you, a beach boy/ Use a blanket. a towel, for god’s sake. I don’t live at home with my mother, scrimping and saving, to look out the window and see you snoozing on a bed of roses–orange roses at that. The thing reminds me of an orgy, just looking at it.”
“That thing reminds me of everything I’ll never have,” Uncle Dan said.
It would be easy to say that not a great deal happens in the book–people die, fall in and out of love, one girl becomes engaged, one gets married and a baby is expected, but in this rich story of life with all of its messy complications, the focus is on the details of these tribal relationships. Gram, a wise, solid life force, has experienced and endured a great deal, and “fed up with cooking” and work, she spends her evenings at “bingo parties, horse racing, roulette at a private club” opting to stay out of her children’s lives, except for the occasional battle with her husband or one of her sons-in-law. Now her children are adults, she mostly ignores them even though her large home is a refuge from trauma for her daughters. With just one daughter, Libby, there permanently, the other daughters come and go, particularly at times of crisis, gathering strength from each other even as they acknowledge differences and weaknesses. Interestingly, apart from the occasional neighbor, we don’t see much of life beyond the farm, but it simply doesn’t matter in this wonderful, timeless tale of family, childhood, love and loss.