Macbeth, by Jo Nesbø. Pub 2018
The last of the recent recommendations, and this was another winner. I’ve not read any Jo Nesbø before, and looking at his bibliography I likely never would have, so this was a very pleasant surprise (I had a similar surprise with a longtime favourite book The Children of Men, by PD James, another one-off excellent novel amidst a bibliography of detective series).
Macbeth in this telling is a police officer in an unspecified time period (seems to be late 60s, early 70s) in an unspecified country (many of the place names are Scottish but no specific locations). The story is a highly imaginative adaptation of a familiar story and characters, presented in a gripping and bloody saga. It’s possible to imagine that the first viewers of Shakespeare’s play would have experienced the same edge-of-the-seat thrills that this novel brings, despite the familiarity of the plot. The murders take place with the same breakneck speed as in the play, but the telling is deftly done and so these do not appear rushed or false. There are even witches and prophesies, sleepwalking and hand-washing, and the fatal flaws of ambition and lust for power that plagued the character’s namesakes.
The novel reminded me of the film version of Richard III (with Ian McKellen and Annette Bening among others). That film was almost as remarkable as this novel, transporting the medieval story 900 years forward into mid-war 20th century, but retaining the Shakespearean dialogue, iambic pentameter and all. The novel dispenses with the meter, but doesn’t lose the gloom and grime of 16th century Scotland, nor the gruesome fates and wicked prophesies.
This novel is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. I had previously avoided this, as I’d heard the novels were not that good (too contrived in the retelling, or unbelievable in the resetting). However, this one is not to be avoided. It was very well written, and retained plenty of the gothic horror and witchcraft. It succeeded in retelling without copying, and was shocking, moving, thrilling and ultimately enjoyable. A true page-tuner (I finished 450+ pages in just 4 days), I highly recommend this book – as a murder story, and for the energy of this familiar tale.