I finally got around to reading the book I blogged about back in April*. It is simultaneously more and less than I thought it would be. It is more in terms of being its own novel, a complete and full-formed piece which uses Shakespeare’s characters, and less in that this makes the characters in the novel the author’s creations and not necessarily my interpretation of Shakespeare’s originals**.
Marina is not content to weave only Much Ado About Nothing into her novel – it is rich with both other Shakespearean characters and with true history***. This did means that one point [SPOILER ALERT] I actually had to stop reading to process the fact that the current plot had Beatrice exiling Romeo from Verona while Benedick sailed with the Armada. Yes, you read that right. Entwined with the history and literature was a nice additional conspiracy theory on the origins of Shakespeare (I’m not calling it a spoiler since I saw it coming from VERY early on) which entertained me even as it utterly failed to convince.
This was an expansion of Much Ado rather than a re-telling or a prequel, and ended up with a lot of doubling up on lines and storylines which was less effective than you might think – I found myself spending much of the first half trying to work out if it was all a twisted version of Much Ado or if it would happen again, and the random interjection of lines and characters from other plays**** pulled me out of the action.
It seems to me that if you are revising and substantial adding to an existing piece, it would be possible to come up with better, not lesser justifications for peoples’ actions. In this Marina utterly failed – Don John, Conrade and Borachio all seem to end up more one-dimensional, not less. Don John is originally Don Pedro’s steward and goes from trusted retainer whose bastardry is unfortunate, to being whipped in public for mis-management to the “plain-dealing villain” of the play in three mentions. Meanwhile Conrade and Borachio go from being described as “they drank too much, but they were honest fellows” to “brothers of the bottle; one fat, one thin, both wicked” with no on-page appearances in-between. It fits particularly poorly with the novel’s theme that honour is not what it seems that the villains should be seemingly forced into the role to constrain the author to come back to Shakespeare’s text.
The non-Shakespeare-related parts of the novel told a rich and meaty story. I think, on balance, I would have been better pleased if she had told it without tying it to Shakespeare.
* If you think this gives you an idea of the size of my unread books pile, you’d be wrong. It is MUCH BIGGER than that.
** I probably shouldn’t moan about it too much. I’ve read an awful lot of oh-god-how-did-this-get-published sequels to Jane Austen novels in my time.
*** The factually-accurate type that Shakespeare was not so red-hot on.
**** This break in the suspension of disbelief was brought to you by Othello, Paris, Sebastian, and the lines “words, words, words”, “what manner of man”, and “put out the light”.*****
***** That got a little bit Sesame Street.