Minnesota native Arthur Phillips writes with such breadth, intelligence and wit one wonders how he’s able to fit his imagination between the covers of a book. In his first five novels, he 1. Takes us to Hungary to hang with expats; 2. Drops us into a cross-continental mystery involving an Egyptian hieroglyph; 3. Leads us through a duplicitous spiritualist’s Victorian London; 4. Soothes grief via music in the age of the iPod; and, 5. Explores family dysfunction after a previously undiscovered Shakespeare play surfaces.
In his sixth novel, “The King at the Edge of the World,” Phillips is back at it, plopping us with his fine prose into a time and place that is shadowy, esoteric and darkly entertaining.
It is 1601 and Queen Elizabeth is dying. She is childless, and the heir apparent is King James VI of Scotland, son of Mary, Queen of Scots. With 40 years of religious warfare still fresh in their memory, the queen’s spymasters have one pivotal task upon which the fate of Britain rests: to find out if James is Catholic. The task falls to Geoffrey Belloc, an oaf of a man whose passionate hatred of “papists” is equal only to his cultish devotion to the queen. In his effort to root out the pope’s men, Belloc, a master manipulator of desperate souls, enlists a Muslim doctor, Mahmoud Ezzedine, to be his spy.
A broken man, Ezzedine has come to Britain as a respected doctor in Constantinople, a devoted family man who wants only to return to his wife and child at the conclusion of the Ottoman Empire’s diplomatic visit to the queen. But no sooner is the ship set to sail than a conniving colleague, lusting after Ezzedine’s wife, arranges for the doctor to be left behind.
Ten years pass. Ezzedine is made “to surrender his name and religion, his family and home” to serve the queen, who gives him to a banished epileptic in North Cumberland. Far from home, the doctor suffers prejudice, suspicion, ridicule and loneliness. He wanders the cold countryside, collecting plants and longing for his family. That’s when Belloc, exploiter of the despairing, comes to call.
The novel is brilliant — textured, witty and Shakespeare-deep with palace intrigue, lust, conspiracy, xenophobia and Iago-level villainy. Best of all is that Phillips puts us inside the head of Ezzedine, the outsider, a man who adores his smart wife and pudgy son and is mystified and a little repulsed by pale northerners who want to kill each other over the best way to worship Jesus. The plot moves toward uncovering James’ Catholicism, but what we really care about is whether Ezzedine will be able to return home to his family with his integrity intact.
As we wander through castles, pubs and dark alleys, this seems a British spy story — but it is more than that: It’s a darkly humorous tale in which compromised people do the dirty work of power-hungry men who peddle in conspiracy and hate.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer and a member of the National Books Critic Circle.
The King at the Edge of the World
By: Arthur Phillips.
Publisher: Random House, 265 pages, $27.
Event: 7 p.m. March 2, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.