Thanks to NetGalley and to Vintage Digital for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This book is part of the Hogarth’s Shakespeare project, a project designed to create novels based on some of Shakespeare’s original plays and bring them up-to-date thanks to best-selling novelists. Although I have been intrigued since I’d heard about the project (because I am a fan of some of the authors, like Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler), this is the first of the novels to come out of the project that I’ve read. Evidently, the idea behind the series was to try and bring new readers to Shakespeare and perhaps combine people interested in the plays with followers of the novelists. My case is a bit peculiar. I love Shakespeare (I prefer his tragedies and his comedies to the rest of his work) but I can’t say I’m an authority on him, and although I’ve read some of his plays, I prefer to attend live performances or watch adaptations (I’ve watched quite a few versions of Hamlet, but not so many of the rest of his plays, by poor chance). I’ve only watched Macbeth a couple of times, so I’m not the best person to comment on how closely Nesbo’s book follows the original. On the other hand, I have not read any of the author’s novels. I’ve watched a recent movie adaptation of one of them (mea culpa, I had not checked the reviews beforehand) but, although I know of him, I cannot compare this novel to the rest of his oeuvre. So I’m poorly qualified to write this review from the perspective of the most likely audience. But, that’s never stopped me before, and this review might perhaps be more relevant to people who are not terribly familiar with either, Macbeth or Nesbo’s books.
From my vague memory of the play, the novel follows the plot fairly closely, although it is set in the 1970s, in a nightmarish and corrupt city (some of the reviewers say it’s a Northern city somewhere not specified. That is true, and although some of the names and settings seem to suggest Scotland, not all details match, for sure), where unemployment is a huge problem, as are drugs, where biker gangs murder at leisure and control the drug market (together with a mysterious and shady character called Hecate, that seems to pull the strings in the background. He’s not a witch here but there’s something otherworldly about him), where the train station has lost its original purpose and has become a den where homeless and people addicted to drugs hung together and try to survive. The police force takes the place of the royalty and the nobles in the original play, with murders, betrayals and everything in between going on in an attempt at climbing up the ladder and taking control of law-enforcement (with the interesting side-effect of blurring any distinction between law and crime), with the city a stand-in for the kingdom of Scotland in the original.
The story is told from many of the characters’ points of view (most of them) and there is a fair amount of head-hopping. Although as the novel advances we become familiar with the characters and their motivations, and it is not so difficult to work out who is thinking what, this is not so easy to begin with as there are many characters with very similar jobs and, at least in appearance, close motivations, so it’s necessary to pay close attention. The technique is useful to get readers inside the heads of the characters and to get insights into their motivations, even if in most cases it is not a comfortable or uplifting experience. The book is truly dark and it seems particularly apt to a moment in history when corruption, morality, and the evil use of power are as relevant as ever. (Of course, the fact that this is an adaptation of a play written centuries before our era brings home that although things might change in the surface, human nature does not change so much). The writing is at times lyrical and at others more down to earth, but it is a long book, so I’d advise readers to check a sample to see if it is something they’d enjoy for the long-haul. I’ll confess that when I started the book I wondered if it was for me, but once I got into the story and became immersed in the characters’ world, I was hooked.
The beauty of having access to the material in a novelised form is that we can get to explore the characters’ subjectivity and motivations, their psychology, in more detail than in a play. Shakespeare was great at creating characters that have had theatregoers thinking and guessing for hundreds of years, but much of it is down to the actors’ interpretation, and two or three hours are not space enough to explore the ins-and-outs and the complex relationships between the characters fully. I was particularly intrigued by Duff, who is not a particularly likeable character, to begin with, but comes into his own later. I liked Banquo, who is, with Duncan, one of the few characters readers will feel comfortable rooting for (Banquo’s son and Angus would fall into the same category, but play smaller parts), and I must warn you that there is no such as thing as feeling comfortable reading this book. I thought what Nesbo does with Lady is interesting and provides her with an easier to understand motivation and makes her more sympathetic than in the play (it is not all down to greed or ambition, although it remains a big part of it). No characters are whiter-than-white (some might be but we don’t get to know them well enough to make that call), and although the baddies might be truly bad, some remain mysterious and unknown, and they are portrayed as extreme examples of the corruption that runs rampant everywhere. Most of the rest of the characters are human, good and bad, and many come to question their lives and what moves them and take a stand that makes them more interesting than people who never deviate from the path of rightness. Macbeth is depicted as a man of contrasts, charitable and cruel, a survivor with a difficult past, perhaps easy to manipulate but driven, full of doubts but determined, addicted to drugs and ‘power’, charismatic and dependent, full of contradictions and memorable.
The ending of the novel is bittersweet. It is more hopeful than the rest of the novel would make us expect, but… (I am not sure I could talk about spoilers in this novel, but still, I’ll keep my peace). Let’s just say this couldn’t have a happy ending and be truthful to the original material.
Although I have highlighted several paragraphs, I don’t think they would provide a fair idea of the novel in isolation, and, as I said before, I recommend downloading or checking a sample to anybody considering the purchase of this novel.
Not knowing Nesbo’s other novels, I cannot address directly his fans. I’ve noticed that quite a number of reviewers who read his novels regularly were not too fond of this one. Personally, I think it works as an adaptation of the Shakespeare play and it is very dark, as dark as the plot of the original requires (and perhaps even more). It is long and it is not an easy-going read. There are no light moments, and it is demanding of the reader’s attention, challenging us to go beyond a few quotations, famous phrases and set scenes, to the moral heart of the play. If you are looking for an interesting, although perhaps a not fully successful version of Macbeth, that will make you think about power, corruption, good and evil, family, friendship, and politics, give it a try. I am curious to read more Nesbo’s novels and some of the other novels in the project.