In Divided Kingdom, society has become troubled and fragmented - obsessed with acquisition and celebrity, it is a place defined by misery, envy, and greed. Crime is rampant; the courts are swamped, the prisons overflowing, divorce following marriage quickly and predictably. Faced with lawlessness and chaos, the current government - hidden in an underground bunker - is forced to make a radical decision.
The Kingdom is to be divided into four countries. This political solution, or "rearrangement", comes with considerable risk but is seen as the only alternative to avert certain anarchy. Each citizen is psychologically assessed and placed, sometimes with force, into four administrative units, each corresponding to one of the medieval "humours."
Concrete boundaries are thrown up, rigidly controlled by the border police, and each country is sealed, fearful of the threat of psychological contamination. The rearrangement is deliberately manufactured to create a climate of suspicion and denial between each country - people burying parts of their personalities that don't fit, and hiding their secrets that could now be judged and condemned.
One night, as the roundup begins, young Matthew is cruelly separated from his parents and taken to an immensely sinister boarding school where he is lectured on the Rearrangements political rationale. The country had become "a troubled place," an enthusiastic Miss Groves tells the class, and this resolution is seen as the only alternative. Subsequently our hero - now renamed Thomas Parry - is given a new family and groomed for advancement in the Red Quarter regime as a civil servant.
After years of studying and career diligence, Thomas is finally given the senior administrative job he has been aiming for; this involves the ongoing process of psychological testing and relocation of members of the population who fail to meet the demands of his quarter. Now he is able to attend commissions and attend cross-border conferences, a privilege available only to the autocratic elite.
Dispatched to a cross-border conference in the Blue Quarter, Thomas clandestinely visits a nightclub, the Bathysphere. Shocking images of his past come back to haunt him, of his mother, and of his first true love. He isn't sure what to make of these memories; all he knows is that he has experienced something so totally profound and addictive that it skews his sanguine nature, setting him on a course of self-discovery as he travels through the divided kingdom's four quarters.
Reminiscent of Huxley's Brave New World, author Rupert Thomson, rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts, the mechanics of this dystopian world, chooses instead to chart Thomas's tortured emotional landscape as he becomes an outlaw, a fugitive, traveling from quarter to quarter, experiencing firsthand each facet of the human condition. Our hero starts off with such noble pursuits and intent, convinced that his role is safeguarding the values and integrity of the Red Quarter: "I realized that I had to fight for the system, had to believe in it, or my removal from my family will have been for nothing."
But like the Kingdom he journeys through, Thomas realizes early o, that there will be no going back - no going back to the part of him that had been buried for so many years, no more glimpses of that forgotten life. Going to Club Bathysphere exposes the need in Thomas, the ache - the hollowness that lies beneath a life so seemingly well ordered, even charmed. Fragments of another life have been released, altering him forever. His experiences lead him to admit that everything he has built has been revealed for what it is - "mere scaffolding."
Thompson evokes a bleak, desolate, almost apocalyptic world, where the psychological outlines of the different Quarters are sharply defined: its landscape of fleeting female figures, semi-erotic encounters, and of canals, waterways, and even underwater seas. It is also a world of transient, almost spiritual figures, fighting for survival in cities that embody all that is selfish and self-absorbed about capitalism.
Although the narrative tends to lose impetus towards the end, Divided Kingdom is mostly a gripping saga, part adventure story, part treatise on the human experience, a portrait of a world that is divided into a type of "psychological racism" where misguided authorities "have force-fed us our own weakness - our intolerance, our bigotry, to create a world where the people seem to need it, and even thrive on this type of prejudice."