In her afterword to The Kingdom of Little Wounds, Susann Cokal describes it as ‘a fairy tale about syphilis,’ which is quite provocative, but also beautifully apt. This dark, creepy, complicated, messy (in a good way) text is shot through with syphilis, the disease that haunts all the narratives within the story and slowly poisons the titular kingdom. And you have plenty of time to enjoy all the complicated fairytelling, because this is a seriously fat young adult novel—one which, incidentally, should be read with caution, but more about that in a moment.
In the city of Skyggehavn, seat of a Scandinavian kingdom, society is being slowly led awry. The princess Sophia dies on the eve of her wedding, but it’s only the latest of a serious of mishaps and horrors to beset the kingdom, which is struggling with a mysterious and awful epidemic, a queen who doesn’t seem entirely in touch with reality, and a king who’s not altogether focused on his job. As the kingdom slowly falls apart, schemers and plotters circle around the throne, and observers rise and fall from favour as they try to make their way through the treacheries of the palace.
Cokal presents the story from the point of view of multiple protagonists, including the King and Queen, a woman named Ava, a slave called Midi Sorte, one of the remaining princesses, and one of those who plots against the crown. As Cokal jumps from chapter to chapter, the narrative is choppy: brilliantly structured, but presented in a way that leaves trails and trickles as one story ends and another picks up, in an homage, she says, to the historic method of storytelling, where many fairytales didn’t have clearly marked endings because they were designed to be continued and shifted between tellers.
The result is a luscious patchwork quilt of a narrative told by people with very different perspectives and points of views on the illnesses of the kingdom and the slow collapse of the monarchy. The combination of the lives of everyday people and royalty gives us a glimpse into the mud, filth, and reality of society, not just the glittery mirage of life in the highest offices of the land, and Cokal doesn’t shy away from describing truly horrific and unpleasant scenes, from a king struggling with extreme pain (possibly from an intestinal cancer, although it’s never made clear, in keeping with the limited medical knowledge of the time), to a brutal rape scene, to a difficult birth.
It is the lack of sugar coating on this book that leads me to caution readers—I really loved it and cannot recommend it enough, but The Kingdom of Little Wounds is violent, it is at times unpleasant, and yes, there are several sexual assaults in the book. All of these scenes are not just thematically appropriate given the setting and the rough era, but they’re also narratively intuitive, and well-crafted. However, they are intense, and thus, I think it’s fair to warn readers. Cokal’s goal isn’t to shock the reader or get a rise by including these scenes, but simply to tell the stories of the characters who live them.
In some ways, she reminds me of Margo Lanagan, who writes similarly messy, cloudy, but glorious narratives. Both authors have tremendous skill when it comes to creating ambiguous stories where it can be hard to track exactly what is going on, because you are sunk deep inside the characters and they have no idea what’s going on themselves. Like the characters, though, you know that whatever is happening is terrible, and you search for meaning in the surrounding text in the hope that the next line will be a lifeline thrown down to you to pull you out of your state of tension.
Both Lanagan and Cokal refuse to relieve their readers, though, creating beautiful layer-cakes of evil, destruction, horror, and, ultimately, strong and peculiar human bonds. The Kingdom of Little Wounds is a world of unlikely alliances, struggles to stay alive, and characters who find ways to rise above the fray and fight for themselves. While they may live in a kingdom stalked by illness and polluted by evil, as individuals, they can create a world for themselves in which it is possible to survive, and in their scheming, the chaotic threads begin to pull together to create a safety net.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds is an elegant, artfully crafted story which avoids being trite or too clever for its own good. Cokal is simply telling a story, but she’s doing so with grace and elegance; even as you’re cringing at the content of a scene, you’re able to intellectually admire how beautifully woven it is. This is a book that it’s advisable to prepare for reading, but it’s well worth your efforts, because even the first reading yields wonderful layers of material, and future readings only get better.
As a piece of literature for discussion and analysis, The Kingdom of Little Wounds would be a great choice, because there’s so much to pick apart and explore. Like more and more young adult these days, it’s definitely crossover in nature, and would be totally fitting for an adult book club as well[1. While I don’t believe in age divides for books, I understand that some adults still need to be convinced it’s okay to like ‘kids’ books.’]. It would make fascinating classroom reading, too, because the reactions of students would be really fascinating to see.
While Cokal’s previous experience lies with adult fiction, it’s clear that she has a knack for young adult as well, and that the same narrative skills she brought to the table with her previous books are on show here, too. The Kingdom of Little Wounds belies the claim that YA can’t or shouldn’t be literary: this book is serious business, and it’s not ashamed of it.