While I never read the book that Daniel Wallace is most widely known for, Big Fish, I did see the movie, and I remember tall tales and fantastical characters. The Kings and Queens of Roam brings more of both of those while also tackling the tough but popular subject of jealousy between sisters.
The location of the town of Roam is never specified, but it’s far enough from the ocean that you can no longer smell it. The town was formed by Elijah McAllister and Ming Kai, a man Elijah kidnapped from China so he could learn how to make silk. Decades later Roam’s residents have mostly vacated the town after the silk factory has closed. Among those left are Elijah’s granddaughters, Helen and Rachel, left alone after their parents’ deaths. Rachel, the beautiful younger sister, is blind and trusting, dependent on her sister, and Helen is so ugly that people can barely even look at her. It’s no surprise that Helen’s insides match her outsides, and she tells cruel lies to Rachel out of jealousy and selfishness. When those lies come back to haunt her, Helen realizes it’s too late to tell the truth and must live with what she’s done.
Other inhabitants of Roam include the living: Digby, the local bartender who is quite short but not a midget; Jonas, who is in love with Helen; Smith, the lumberjack who is always followed by a pack of dogs, and the ghosts of the dead, who can be seen by Helen and Digby. Perspective shifts among these characters and also jumps back to the founding of Roam.
The Kings and Queens of Roam is magical realism at its finest. It’s difficult to tell which stories within the story are true and which aren’t, but the telling makes the truth irrelevant. The characters are well developed and real; while Helen’s motives are understandable, her treatment of her sister is cruel and unforgivable, and Rachel’s reaction to the truth is shocking. I also liked some of the more minor but important characters, including the ghosts that hang out at Digby’s bar, the doctor who discovers a magical stream that can cure blindness, Markus, Ming Kai’s grandson who tells his own lies to Rachel, and Jonas, the devoted but not so bright mechanic in love with Helen.
If you like fairy tales for adults, or are looking to branch out into the magical realism genre, I recommend this book.
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