The Phoenix By Ruth Sims
At fourteen, Kit St. Denys brought down his abusive father with a knife. At twenty-one his theatrical genius brought down the house. At thirty, his past—and his forbidden love—nearly brought down the curtain for good.
A compelling Victorian saga of two men whose love for each other transcends time and distance—and the society that considers it an abomination. Set in the last twenty years of the 19th century, The Phoenix is a multi-layered historical novel that illuminates poverty and child abuse, theatre history in America and England, betrayal, a crisis of conscience, violence and vengeance, and the treatment of insanity at a time when such treatment was in its infant stage. Most of all it is a tale of love on many levels, from carnal to devoted friendship to sacrifice.
This is a beautifully written, intense love story set in late 1880’s spanning decades and continents. Clearly well researched and intricately plotted, the book hardly makes a misstep as the love affair between two men is besieged by numerous obstacles and outside influences. The complex characters and engrossing plot combine to create a wonderfully lyrical and moving story which will easily stand the test of time. Fans of literature and historical fiction particularly should be sure to pick this up if you haven’t already and anyone hoping to read a fabulous story with complicated situations and flawed characters will want to lose themselves in this book.
The story follows the life of Kit St. Denys, born Jack Rourke, as he struggles during his abusive childhood to being adopted by the wealthy and cultured St. Denys family. As he adapts to a new life in the upper echelons of society and wealth, Kit never forgets his past and is haunted by memories of his father. Those memories are only offset when Kit meets the puritanical Nicholas and begins a love affair that would span years and continents as the two struggles against violence, religion, abuse, jealousy, work, marriage, insanity, and the constant intensity of their emotions. The lovers are apart more than they are together but their need and desire never abate. The two must overcome incredible obstacles for the hope of a future.
The story itself is complex and intricate as the action never stops from start to finish. The main character of Jack, later Kit, centralizes the story and all other characters revolve in his orbit. Even though the story alternates between different perspectives, each action relates to Kit. The beginning could have been extended as it describes Jack’s life in the gutter and his relationships to various other people. His early love affair with the theatre is important and beautifully described against the stark contrast to the squalor and violence of his home life. His escape to another life is essential to his survival but his mental health suffers from his experiences and abuse. The incredible reality the writing produces from the gritty slums of London to the lush mansion of St. Denys Hill, the texture and depth to the setting is never sacrificed for the story or characters. This added level of detail adds another layer to the rich narrative.
The characters themselves are wonderfully flawed, complex, and absorbing characters. Kit is a huge personality that leaps off the page in all his over the top, outrageous glory. Yet for all his outgoing personality, his insecurities run deep and his obsession with Nicholas causes him a great deal of pain. His need to be accepted and loved is evident but few touch his carefully guarded heart. He loves his close friends and mixtures comfort and friendship with casual sex, much to Nicholas’ anger. Kit is often depicted as rash and selfish but his actions have purpose, even if it’s to chase the love of his life or ruin a competitor. The author has delivered a wonderfully complex and complicated character that dominates scenes and demands to be heard even as his story evokes intense emotion and heart ache.
Kit’s emotional journey and development drives the story just as Nicholas’ path to finding happiness and acceptance hallmarks the beautifully crafted tale. Nicholas is a classic opposite to Kit’s debauched and extravagant lifestyle as the puritan who believes deeply in god and religion. Nicholas is often dour and restrained, experiencing no joy or happiness in the endless theatre world of beauty and flirting. He is often jealous and angry at Kit’s casual affection for strangers and acquaintances and feels out of place when not working at the surgery. Nicholas often jumps to conclusions and takes the length of the novel to see the depth and complexity of Kit’s character. Nicholas’ journey is arguably more difficult and complicated as he must come to terms with his relationship with God versus his relationship with Kit. This internal, emotional battle colors a majority of Nicholas’ actions and thoughts; only the overwhelming continuous love, need, and desire for Kit break through the strong barrier of Nicholas’ guilt and shame.
As brilliant and well written as this story is, there are a few minor problems. I’ll stress these were minor as the elements that bothered me may or may not bother other readers. The first was that towards the end of the book, Jack/Kit’s past is resurrected and this turns the narrative in a completely different direction involving a lengthy aside about mental health care at its inception. This particular inclusion caused the pace and story to start to drag and although emotional, lacked the deep intensity the story had up until then. This is partly because the resolution is weak and indecisive. The problem gradually is dismissed without a solid conclusion, leaving the characters and story dangling slightly even as the action continues.
At this point, yet another obstacle is thrown up and the sheer number of miscommunications and poor decisions by the characters starts to overwhelm the story. Although the emotional development of Kit is epitomized by his final decisions and sacrifice he wasn’t capable of earlier in the novel, the intensity of the story and deeply moving elements deserved an equally satisfying ending. The narrative draws to a close soon after but the final resolution is wrapped up so quickly, it lacks the fierce passion the story has built. Since the story is unabashedly a romance and complicated love affair between two flawed men, the final two paragraphs are not enough to deliver the satisfaction I was hoping for. That’s not to say the ending is a disappointment just that after 375 pages even, I was hoping for more emotional payoff.
Overall this is a lovely piece of historical fiction that is well written with nuanced prose, complex flaws, bold emotion, and intense passion. Although nothing I’ve said will be new to those who have read and loved the story, I hope new readers are convinced to give this epic love affair a try. You truly won’t be disappointed.
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