Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings Bad Kings: A Multi-Voiced Debut
Good Kings Bad Kings is the debut novel from playwright Susan Nussbaum. The book tells the story of life at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, a nursing home for disabled children. The novel is told through multiple narrators, including patients in the institution as well as people who work there. Each chapter reads like a monologue; the voice of each character is unfiltered, free. Together, they tell the story of what life is like at the institution.
Nussbaum does an excellent job of capturing authenticity in the various voices of her characters. Each individual character is brought to life with Nussbaum’s exceptional use of tone. It seems clear from her work as a playwright and her experience in the theater that she holds a reverence for language and the power it possess in capturing an audience.
In 2012, Nussbaum was awarded the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Good Kings Bad Kings. The award, established by Barbara Kingsolver, was created in order to recognize and promote fiction that addresses social issues. Nussbaum, who is disabled herself, has been a leading activist for the rights of the disabled -- specifically recognized for her work with girls with disabilities.
The subtext of the novel clearly speaks to these issues. In fact, the more we read about the institution and the individuals inside, the more we learn about the business, the politics and the cultural surrounding of what it means to be disabled. The varying points of view are what make this novel reach its full potential. The text does not overwhelm the reader, but instead comes in pieces, filtering from each character at their own time and in their own voice.