Sometimes an author puts one book into the world that, in its time, is showered with acclaim and awards. Then, for whatever reason, that author slowly fades away. It’s not always fair to call them one-hit wonders, but in the case of an author like Joan Chase, whose 1983 debut During the Reign of the Queen of Persia was recently reprinted by NYRB Classics, the question of why such a gifted writer only published two more novels (1990’s The Evening Wolves and 1991’s Bonneville Blue) is intriguing.
While she obviously had her motives, reading her debut — which won the PEN/Hemingway Prize for First Fiction by an American author the year it came out — now, it’s hard to not wish she’d produced more, or would even reemerge now to give us another book. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is so strong, so penetrating, that it’s hard to believe it was her first foray into novel writing.
Set on a farm in rural Ohio, in a time that vaguely evokes any part of the early to mid-20th century, itis a book about family and the uncertainty that comes with growing up. The story, told from the point of view of four cousins who spend their summers on the farm, doesn’t shrink from any of the pains and pleasure of growing up: the bad choices, the little fights, the gossip, and how a family deals with the death of one of their own. These details are recounted in rich and vivid prose, perfect for reading in the upcoming days when spring turns to summer and you’re longing for something with more emotional depth than just a vapid beach read.