Book Review: The Lost Kings by Tyrell Johnson
When Jeanie King was a little girl, she lost her mother to a car accident that nearly claimed her own life as well. With her twin brother Jamie, she’s subsequently raised by her loving Aunt Eileen and Uncle Derek in Santa Clara, California, until her father finally comes home from his stint in the military. Having been discharged from active service, he whisks the kids away to Washington State, where they all make do in a cabin in the woods.
Alas, his tours of duty and the death of his beloved wife have changed him indelibly from the loving dad Jeanie and Jamie once knew:
Since moving to the cabin, I’d felt, to be honest, slightly scared of him. Of the dark, deep-river looks he’d get on his face; of the way he’d yell at nothing in the middle of the night; of how he’d rub his wounded leg with dead, lifeless eyes; or of how he’d tell Jamie to “Buck the hell up,” “Stop your blubbering,” “Don’t be such a fucking girl.” Sometimes I’d see bruises on Jamie’s neck or arms, pale blue like spilled ink. But now, now that we had our little time in the woods murdering beer cans and jugs of milk, something was germinating between us. Not something old, from the before-dad, but something new, something fresh and green, with soft leaves unfurling.
Even as Dad’s ongoing disapproval pushes Jamie further and further away, he and Jeanie begin to bond over target shooting. Jeanie feels guilty for hoarding her father’s love like this, but reminds herself Jamie is better than she is at everything else, so why not have something of her own? Everything changes, however, when she’s twelve years old and wakes up one night to find her father covered in blood in their kitchen, blood that she instinctively knows is human. Dad tells her to go back to bed. When she wakes again in the morning, Dad is gone and Jamie has disappeared as well.
Fast-forward twenty years, and Jeanie is living in Oxford, England, having traveled to her mother’s place of birth and setting down roots there, far away from her American West Coast upbringing. These roots are admittedly tenuous, as the tragedies of her childhood have made her afraid to get too close to anyone for fear of losing them as she did her entire family. One of her few constants is the therapist she has a surprisingly combative relationship with:
Sometimes I pictured Dr. Gardner cracking me open like an egg. Snapping my ribs, splitting my hips, wrenching my skull apart and wading through the gooey center of me. I wanted him to find the rot, the thing that made me the way I was, and then I wanted him to carefully remove it like a tapeworm. Then he’d sew me up. There, he’d say. You’re all better. If only I could manifest my sorrows into something physical enough to be excised.
But then a face from her past shows up, with news she isn’t sure she’s ready for. Maddox was her first love, the boy who knew her as a feral child on the Washington shore. Now he’s a writer with a lead, one he wants to give to her first. He’s tracked her down to England to tell her he thinks he’s found her father, hiding near a remote upstate New York town.
While Jeanie wants to confront her dad about what happened on that last terrible night they saw one another, what she really wants to know is what happened to Jamie. Had her father taken her brother with him, leaving her behind? How had Jamie, who wanted to escape their dad more than anything, agreed to any of that? Most importantly, where is Jamie now?
This psychological thriller explores the psyche of a deeply damaged woman seeking healing from the grievous wounds of her youth. Tyrell Johnson sensitively unravels the tangles in his protagonist’s soul with gorgeous prose, as Jeanie grapples with the betrayals she’s endured and reaches for closure and understanding. Some of the twists are less surprising than others but The Lost Kings overall is a beautifully written novel of loss and what it takes to move forward, with a courageous, prickly heroine who is easy to root for as she finally confronts her father and their shared, devastating truth.