Perpetua’s Kin, by M. Allen Cunningham. Portland, Oregon: Atelier26, September 2018. 336 pages. $17.00, paper.
There are books that take more time to read, not because the plot isn’t interesting enough, characters not engaging, or life gets in the way, but because they are full of powerful scenes that demand to be meditated on before moving on to the next. Perpetua’s Kin, by M. Allen Cunningham, is one of these books. It demands to be absorbed, for the reader to take their time, and for every scene to be savored. The writing of this book is more than utilitarian, it is lyrical, befitting a retelling of the bard’s play.
Benjamin Lorn is the son of civil war veteran J.M. Lorn, trapped in his childhood home in Perpetua by the dying wish of his mother. Conflicted by a packet of letters collected and left for him posthumously by his mother, Benjamin struggles with his relationship with his father, and by extension his relationship with the world and his duties as a son. This reweaving of Shakespeare’s Hamlet spans generations of a family, exploring Benjamin’s need to run from the past in the American exploration of the world, and the endless expansion of life. Every aspect of the story means something. From the physical ailments of J.M. and Benjamin, to the length of paragraphs, every ounce of this story begs to be considered.
To locate one voice of this book would be to ignore the narrative style and storytelling nature. We follow Benjamin’s narration: melodious, melancholy, and punctuated with statements such as “I betray my father!” We also get the direct voice of his father in a way that most resembles a war journal: factual inventories of death and loss placed next to descriptions of waiting, tensions rising, and so on. Then the many voices of the letters, war vets, priests, and even the love letters of Benjamin and Alma. Finally, Avis, the child of Benjamin and the bitter mother in search of her own son. All of these voices sound distinct, altering the form of the story, and the visual of the words on the page, much the way each play character’s voice stands out from each other in pitch, volume, tone, and body language. Yet all of these voices come together to speak about similar topics. Instead of losing the reader with new voices, we are grounded in the familiar topics and unique approaches to those concepts. When Avis describes her relationship with her son—“We lie and the lies are love. Avis wonders, after seventeen years of mothering, whether this will remain her single tender memory of that child now so changed”—she approaches the relationship she has with her son in a completely different way then Benjamin approaches his relationship with his father. More than just their family relations connect them, as also the strings of repeating familial mistakes plays an important role in the story.
The most consistent theme is one of perspective, and then that being proved wrong. When Benjamin meets with Mr Wren for the first time, he describes his office this way: “His sumptuous carpet, Benjamin observes, runs short of the walls, giving over to raw pine flooring, hardworn and bespattered. Along the baseboards lie lumps of sawdust, sand, trickles of dirt. But this office seems a place where studious hours accumulate, thought upon smoldering thought metered to the stately metronome of a clock. Yet there is no clock here.” The movement from the carpet, to the raw pine flooring covered in dust and dirt, then the metered thought to the observation of no clock with which to mediate thought by, is exemplary of the way this novel builds upon itself. From the beginning, the understanding characters have moves from surface level, to a deeper but flawed understanding, then back to surface for a more complete understanding. It is one of the most effective aspects of this story, as it is supported by the narrative structure, the technical writing, and the world.
There are times when the plot may be lost, and it is helpful to have some knowledge of Hamlet when reading this book. It can stand alone without having read or seen Hamlet, but knowledge of the play greatly enhances the story. There are a few sections where it feels like the narrative lags, specifically when we first get Avis’ point of view. There were plenty of times when I found myself wondering why her point of view was necessary at all, but as I continued reading I was drawn in to the power of her voice, and began to care for her view. The novel itself is not a fast-paced novel, but readers should not expect it to be. It is the kind of novel that takes time, and can be read again and again, leading to more discoveries.
Laura-Gray Lovelace is a senior at Winthrop University. Her most recent piece, “Don’t Forget Page 43,” can be found in issue 240 of Crack the Spine, and “Me Too” can be found in the Winthrop University’s Anthology.