“Fate refuses to stop at the pretty part of the tale; Fate insists on more tests of courage and wit, a terrible end, even if the heroine’s heart be pure and her crime accidental.”
The Kingdom of Little Wounds is a fairy tale about syphilis set in Renaissance Scandinavia. The novel focusses on disease and medicine, astrology, friendship, guilt and absolution, and the daily life of royalty as well as ordinary people against the backdrop of a dying city fighting for survival. Most importantly, the book is about power – who has it and how it is misused.
Susann Cokal’s novel follows the tale of three different women: a peasant, a former slave, and a queen. Each of these women suffer perennially; they are helpless and powerless in a male dominated world. Ava Bingen works in the royal palace as a seamstress after bearing the brunt of a scandal in her neighbourhood. Midi Sorte was kidnapped from her unnamed home country, sold to a Lord and Lady, mutilated, and also sent to work at the palace as a nurse. Isabel is married to the King, and her role as Queen is subsumed into the act of childbearing. All three women, so diverse and dissimilar, are thrust together and forced to combat political intrigue, upstart nobles obsessed with power, and men’s desire to control women’s bodies.
“In the darkness, fear my light.”
This story will upset most of its readers; that is indisputable. Much of the events in the novel are difficult to read given how unpleasant they are. Funnily enough, that is what I loved most about the novel. It is so refreshing to read a historical book that does not skip over the uncomfortable, and sometimes horrid, side of life. The novel even went so far as to actively include those scenes – from the King pooping in front of a group of courtiers, to people randomly farting, to the Queen picking at the wax in her ear, and to how women deal with menstruation. While these scenes left me grimacing, the truly horrid scenes – such as the description of rape, murder, and mutilation; the explanations of physicians analysing Isabel’s privates; the death via poop explosion; and the narrative of a physician conducting an experiment using his own penis – had me putting the book down for a good five minutes before I could continue reading. Although some scenes upset me, I am glad they were included. To pretend that such things don’t/didn’t happen in real life, especially to women, would be prejudicial.
What makes such scenes readable is the beautiful language and writing of the novel. The best way I could possibly describe Cokal’s writing would be ’graceful.’ Her writing is poetic and each sentence flows easily and seamlessly into the next, from her explanations of the normalcy of life to the descriptions of violent deaths. Her writing is vivid, yet subtle and straight to the point. I have not read a YA novel where the words evoke such intense feelings from the reader – usually I come across this with classical and modern literature, such as The Catcher in the Rye which had me bawling buckets of tears. In The Kingdom of Little Wounds, Cokal evoked disgust and fear from me through her clinical descriptions of everyday life and the many things humans do in private.
“I am part of history, whether anyone knows it or not.”
Historically (though it still happens), women were often abused and manipulated by powerful men, usually with no consequences on the part of the men. This novel upturns that truth: while the women are still abused and manipulated, in the end, the men behind these acts are punished – and in gruesome ways. It takes a long time for Ava, Midi and Isabel to gain agency, but once they do, you can’t help but root for them and watch them take down the very men who locked them away, abused, manipulated and raped them. Cokal gives a voice to those people who were born powerless and shows the ways in which women can find strength in themselves and in each other.
Despite the dark tone of the novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds is essentially a positive story about good triumphing over evil, and the hope and courage it takes to break free from one’s abusers and the cruelty they administer. The book is long and engrossing, obviously well-researched and definitely worth the read. I will most definitely be checking out Susan Cokal’s other novels.
Buy the book here.