Remember those scholastic-aptitude tests you took in grade school, the ones that told you what kind of career path you should follow? Those tests and their ilk take on a much more ominous significance in light of Rupert Thomson's new novel, Divided Kingdom.
A near-future science-fiction odyssey, the book is set in England after a revolution in which the powers-that-be have sorted people into four categories: "not according to economic status or social position, not according to colour, race or creed, but according to psychology, according to type," as one leader puts it. The divisions are named after what medicine has traditionally called the body's humours: yellow bile (choleric), black bile (melancholic), phlegm (phlegmatic) and blood (sanguine). This "rearrangement," as it's called, disturbingly echoes such long-since-abandoned practices as eugenics and phrenology, and the results are as chaotic and disastrous as one might expect. Children are ripped from the arms of their parents, husbands and wives are parted, and the four groups are moved into four separate quarters, each enclosed by insurmountable concrete walls.
The book's narrator, Thomas Parry (his post-rearrangement name), is among the first batch of children taken from his parents and moved. Luckily for him he's designated sanguine, the "best" of the four humours. He's placed in a grim boarding school with other "Children of the Red Quarter" and indoctrinated with the principles of the system. When he's old enough, he is assigned to a new family, or what's left of it: a bereaved father whose wife has been relocated, and an adopted sister with whom Thomas immediately and irrevocably falls in love. He is encouraged to spy on this new family; later, he is secretly hired to work for the government, and his ability to assimilate makes him good at the job. Even then, though, you can sense rebellion lurking under his calm surface.
When Thomas suddenly snaps, while on a work trip to the Yellow Quarter, he sets out on a fascinating journey that confirms his doubts about the efficacy of the divided kingdom. His motivations, though, are hardly political; what he really wants, even before he realizes it, is to find his mother and the scraps of a childhood he lost when his new life began. It's a universal desire, and one that demonstrates just how difficult it is to define and categorize something as complicated as a human being.
Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.