May 13, 2016 by kitmoss
Reviewed by Christopher H. Moss
I cannot even begin to tell you how much I enjoyed this novel, but I will try. It is an intelligent, well-written, emotionally involving book that so impressed me while I was reading it I found it was the last thing I thought of as I fell asleep at night and the first thing I thought of whenever I woke.
The Phoenix tells two interwoven stories. The first follows the life of Jack, a boy from London’s slums, who through a tragic set of circumstances is adopted by a wealthy man and grows up privileged and destined to a brilliant career as actor Kit St. Denys. The other is Nick Stewart, who comes from a fundamentalist religious upbringing that plays havoc with his destiny, which is to fall in love with and struggle with his love for Kit. It is a story of true love, conflict, mental agony, and redemption.
All his life Kit is plagued with nightmares of his father, whom he stabbed in retaliation for his brutality and the death of his twin, Michael. Only Nick, a physician, seems able to help him through his torment. In the meantime, all of Kit’s life experience and fears find their way into his acting and help to make him an internationally renowned thespian. Nick’s possessive jealousy drives him away to America where he tries to remake himself as a respectable heterosexual. When Kit’s childhood trauma returns to haunt him in a very real way, Nick is back in Kit’s arms and there to save him. But now others get in the way, and the rest of the novel is about whether these two star-crossed lovers will find their way back to each other.
Sims took a couple decades to write this novel. It started out as the story of an American doctor in the years before the Civil War and his courtship of a beautiful woman involved with the Underground Railroad. Sims tells how she added an English actor as a character, and in the way of good writer’s characters, he and the doctor took over the story, and soon the actor and the doctor were the ones courting.
There are so many things I value in this novel. It is a lovely and poignant love story. Unlike too many novels about gay men or lesbians, there is no “explanation” of why the characters are attracted to their own sex. They just are, as Kit says, “and no one knows why.” The naturalness of the attraction is what makes this love story so compelling. It is outside influences, not any “deviance” on the lovers’ parts, that interferes with the trueness of their love. How refreshing and how important.
Sims knowledge of the theater and its history in Victorian England and the U.S. is astounding and brings authenticity to every page. She peppers the story with historical figures such as Oscar Wilde, Diamond Jim Brady, Maude Adams, and William James in a most non-intrusive way. More than any other quality of the novel I was struck by the utter lack of predictability. Throughout the reading of this long, involved story I had expectations over and over that over and over did not come about… keeping me thoroughly involved and turning pages.
The characters are likewise complex and credible, not only troubled brilliant Kit and troubled earnest Nick, but also Nick’s wife, Bronwen, both victim and victimizer, who develops into the viper that Kit first discovered she was not; Kit’s friends in the theater, Nick’s Bowery patients; and Kit’s string of lovers who could never take Nick’s place.
I highly recommend this novel for its originality, sensitivity, depth, emotional richness, and for its simply enjoyable and involving story.