Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s World, edited by Jonathan Oliver & David Moore

Shakespeare’s
world is a tempting place to fall into, but for an author, it can be perilous
indeed.  Writing a story set in
Shakespeare’s world or time requires more than just a good imagination, or a
love of his work.  But it is
possible, as the authors in the new collection Monstrous Little Voices have proven.  In it, five different stories based on five of Shakespeare’s
best-known plays come together in a tangible world spun from the very fiber of
his words.  Each story proceeds
naturally from the one before it, gaining momentum until the very end—somehow
fittingly, from Twelfth Night.

Foz
Meadows’ “Coral Bones” manages flashback and world-hopping with finesse to give
us another side of Miranda, daughter of Prospero, and her relationship with
Ariel.  “The Course of True Love,”
by Kate Heartfield, while taking place in the kingdom of Orsino and Viola,
spins the tale of an old witch and friend of Sycorax, the mother of Caliban,
who meets a strange fairy in a garden where no garden ought to be.  In Emma Newman’s “The Unkindest Cut,”
Prospero has returned to Milan after the death of his daughter Miranda, and is
confronted in his tower by a young woman following the urgings of her mother
and another seer who have foretold her marriage to a young man, a marriage that
will unite the warring Medici family. 

From
Milan we move back to the coast of Illyria and, along with the Aragonese
princes, Rosalind, Parolles, and the philosopher Jacques, come face to face
with the revenant of the dreaded Scottish warrior Macbeth, in Adrian
Tchaikovsky’s “Even in the Cannon’s Mouth.”  Finally, Jonathan Barnes’ “On the Twelfth Night” imagines a
world without Shakespeare, imagines worlds upon worlds in which every decision
led to a different life, a different Will Shakespeare, and tells that tale from
the position of Anne Shakespeare. 

The
treatment of characters in all of these stories is poetic and sensitive to
their histories, imagining what might have been or who they would have become
in the aftermath of the dramas that first brought them into our lives as
readers and audiences.  As the John
Lavagnino writes in the afterword, Shakepeare didn’t write all of these plays
as if they were one world, but his use of source material, the way he combines
his influence and imagination, leaves room for worlds of creativity and
connection.  This is a collection that
any lover of Shakespeare, Elizabethan drama, or alternate-history fantasy must
check out.

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Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Everything
happens for a reason.  A motto that
many use when bad things happen to good people takes on new meaning in the
story of a disparate group of people who live through the collapse of
civilization in a breathtaking pandemic. 
Station Eleven is a painfully
self-aware novel about finding meaning in the most incomprehensible
circumstances, an extended metaphor on extended metaphor that lovers of
cerebral fiction will find irresistible.

The
novel revolves around the life of Arthur Leander, a world-famous actor who
wants nothing less than to be unknown, but who can’t help being a star—in all
its meanings.  When Arthur is
starring in his final role as Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear, he unknowingly sets off a chain of events that will
reverberate even through the post-pandemic world that Kirsten Raymonde and the
rest of the Traveling Symphony find themselves in.  Post-civilization is much as one would expect in that type
of novel, with violence, small bands of people surviving together, and the
occasional religious prophet come to profit off the disaster.  Yet Mandel adds a subtle twist in that
the story revolves not around the characters’ struggle for survival, but their
struggle for something more than survival, and the secret of a comic book story
called Station Eleven.

Mandel’s writing is understated, a satisfying contrast to the
theatricality that is the subject of the novel.  The actions of her characters speak for themselves.  The prose is simple while reveling in
the disparateness of the pre- and post- collapse chapters.  This novel is reminiscent of traditional
coming-of-age stories or the tale of the hero’s journey, however Mandel leaves
in question just who is coming of age—Kirsten, Arthur, one of the other
characters, or even the next society itself—and whose journey it truly is.  Those who are looking for action might
feel the plot unravels too slowly, but those who like to savor a story won’t
want it to end.

Those
who like near-future dystopia and “what comes after” stories will enjoy
Mandel’s depictions of a society coming to terms with what it has lost.  Lovers of language and its inextricable
intertwining with literature will certainly feel the pull of a writer who
obviously does too.  Readers who
seek character-driven, self-aware fiction will enjoy the many levels upon which
Mandel has built her world.

The Tutor, by Andrea Chapin

            Reading The Tutor I had the feeling the author was trying to pack as many Early Modern “things” into one Elizabethan novel as she possibly could.  At first I was a bit tickled by the references to plays, superstitions, and language use.  After a while, though, it became tiresome.  Let’s step back a bit.  The Tutor is Chapin’s first novel.  Though it’s a well-plotted story, it’s bound to have its missteps.  Truly, I didn’t mind the references themselves, or the use of period language that might be unknown to some readers in the dialog.  It was the author’s attempts to explain everything that bothered me.  From a purely literary standpoint, if the meaning of a turn of phrase or historical reference can’t be gleaned from its context, it probably doesn’t belong there.  For comparison, there are plenty of great descriptions of clothing that are full of words, the meaning of which the majority of readers won’t be familiar with, however the author never stops to explain just what a partlet is.  As a first-time novelist, the author is too obvious in her desire for readers to see just how clever she is in mixing in so much poetry and Early Modern vocabulary. 

            That said, The Tutor is a novel that grips the reader until the end.  Deciding to write about a set period of time—the time between 1592 and 1594 when the London playhouses were closed and little is known about Shakespeare’s life—provides the author and reader with a goal and deadline.  For readers who know a little about Shakespeare’s life, it also provides a bit of a guilty pleasure thrill: we know how the story must end, based on what we know about the bard himself, however we have a little bit of space to fantasize.  No doubt this was what drew Chapin to the story. 

            Katharine, the protagonist and point of view character, is without doubt a strongly developed character, as are all of her family and acquaintance.  Notable personages in The Tutor are sketched perhaps differently than they would be in other novels, however that is more related to Katharine’s relationship to them.  She is a charitable person, willing to see the good in all, even the women/witches brought to the estate for a night on their way to the assizes: when Katharine first hears that they must allow the women to be imprisoned there she gives way to the superstitions of the time, however upon learning more about them and seeing them she decides they are more likely victims of circumstance and people to be pitied.  Katharine is a frustrating character, though, because the reader generally wants good things to happen to her, but she makes choices that are not necessarily good for her emotional well-being.  She is a strong person, but like anyone, makes bad choices.  It is gratifying that the author brings the reader into Katharine’s headspace often enough to understand her motivations, though there are times I wished for more plot and less thought.  But I imagine that readers who enjoy historicals and romances will be quite engrossed in Katharine’s story. 

            Depending upon what you know about Shakespeare and his work, you will either like or dislike Chapin’s sketch of him.  By placing the story deeply in Catholic country, among the manors of the rich and educated, Chapin shows her allegiance to the nobility, making Shakespeare out as an upstart, a bit of a fraud, and one who has not quite “earned” what he has.  The parallels between Chapin’s sketch of his character and the nobles’ opinions of Queen Elizabeth are just a little too uncanny for anyone to truly be enthralled by him, whatever his genius. 

The themes the author builds—the nature of desire, belief and superstition, love and marriage—are well-placed in this historical setting.  I’d wish that Chapin had spent more time on these themes and less on Katharine’s headspace, but again, it is also a matter of taste.  Chapin has certainly put effort into shining light on the real situation of women in the period, rather than relying on the oft-used trope of women as wives and homemakers and nothing else.  Katharine is an individual who is treated as such by her family.  But though it’s gratifying to see a woman be given credit for intelligence and ability, the degree to which Chapin lets her protagonist be used by Shakespeare may be a letdown for some readers.

            Readers who enjoy historical novels featuring famous figures will enjoy The Tutor for its homage to Shakespeare and Elizabethan England.  Those who want a little more cerebral romance will also find it gratifying.  As a student of the Early Modern period, I can’t guarantee that all Early Modernists will enjoy this novel, for reasons outlined above, but it will certainly be an engrossing read whatever your overall impressions of the writing.  This novel is sure to warm up any reader’s cold midwinter.