Rupert Thomson: Divided Kingdom
If you have ever been to one of those management training courses where you are divided by category, whether Myers-Briggs, Firo-B, the Big Five or one of the many other personality tests, you will be aware that they can be fun and often have a grain of truth in them, but that they are probably not the way to run an organisation or, even less, a country, at least not on their own. Thomson’s novel shows what happens when they are used to run a country.
It is the near future. The United Kingdom has been divided into four quarters, based on the traditional Four Humours. There is a yellow quarter for those of choleric disposition, i.e. people inclined to be violent and short-tempered. There is a red quarter for those of sanguine disposition, i.e. people inclined to be happy and generous. There is a blue quarter for those of phlegmatic disposition, i.e. sluggish and unambitious. There is a green quarter for those of melancholic disposition. Thomson even gives us a map of the United Kingdom, with the four quarters meeting in what is now London but which has been subdivided and become the capitals of the four countries. The Yellow Quarter is more or less Northern Ireland, the Central Midlands and the Western part of Northern England and Southern Scotland. The Green Quarter is the east of the country from Essex up to the Highlands and then of all of the Highlands, excluding the Hebrides (which are in the Blue Quarter). The Blue Quarter is Wales and South West England. The Red Quarter is South-East England and the West and South Midlands. It is never explained why the specific humours have been assigned to these areas. Nor is there a logical explanation as to why or how the country has been divided up in his way. Sinister forces are implied, with politicians seeming to win elections by a landslide but with an implication that it is all fixed. Thomson is not really interested in the whys and the wherefores but merely in showing that this type of categorisation, whether by humours or other categories such as race (a specific reference is made to this) is doomed to failure.
The whole programme was introduced suddenly and was later called the Rearrangement. We follow the story of one person. He is born Matthew Micklewright though, for most of the book, he will be called Thomas Parry. As a boy of eight, he is forcibly taken away from his parents (they do not resist). He is taken, with other boys to a place which seems to be like an old-fashioned English boys’ boarding school. There they are taught about the new order and that they have been designated as Children of the Red Quarter. He has been designated as sanguine. Eventually, he is allocated to a family, specifically Victor and his daughter Marie. Victor’s wife has also been forcibly removed and Victor will spend much of the rest of his life mourning her loss. Marie is older than Thomas (as he is now called) and he soon falls in love with her. However, it also soon becomes clear that neither Victor nor Marie are really sanguine types. Thomas has a fairly normal growing up, given the political situation and lack of mother, despite the descent of both Victor and Marie into a more melancholic disposition. He goes to university and does well there.
Towards the end of his time at university, he is headhunted by the government and gets a job working for the government in the field of relocating people who are in the wrong quarter. We get a glimpse of how this work and watch Thomas’ rise up the ladder, till he is eventually given an important job of attending a conference in the Blue Quarter, with representatives of the other quarters. He does briefly mix with the other delegates but he is particularly attracted by an invitation he receives to a club called the Bathysphere. It seems a quiet club (no music) but when he is led in, the first person he sees is one of his friends from the boarding school who had mysteriously and suddenly been removed for strange behaviour. The second person he sees is Marie as she was when he first met her. He spends time with her but has to leave. He goes back the next night and, when he goes through one of the doors, finds that he is in his biological parents’ home.
The rest of the book – and the most interesting part – deals with how Parry copes with what he has seen, how he reacts and how he tries to get back to his past. We get glimpses of all the four quarters and how they function (or, in some cases, don’t function). We meet people from all the four quarters, some of whom are typical of the quarter and others who are possibly in the wrong quarter. We also get to meet the White People, who are those people who fit into neither or all quarters. They are somewhat like mendicant orders, travelling around the country, living by begging and petty theft, not talking but communicating with one another by telepathy, generally calm and non-violent and, of course, wearing white. The ending is, of course, unpredictable.
Thomson is not too interested in the politics, which is good as the rationale behind the creation and maintenance of this situation is logically terribly flawed. But that does not matter too much, if you are prepared to suspend belief which, as a good reader, you should. The fairly obvious point that we cannot be subdivided into categories in this (or any other) way is stated without being hammered home. People are complex which we know, even if politicians and others don’t always realise this and we all tend to be something of a mixture. Thomson tells a strange but very fascinating story which is certainly well worth reading.
First published 2005 by Bloomsbury