OPHELIA’S REVENGE by Rebecca Reisert (Review)

Norway, mid-11th Century

Looking back, I blame my disgraceful behaviour in part on my hunger to make sense of the lives of Prince Hamlet and his family. If we’re to stay sane, our world must make sense, and to my thirteen-year-old self there was too much in the lives of the queen and king that made no sense at all. In part I blame my bad behaviour on my boredom. Yes, it was glorious to live as a lady in the castle, but I hadn’t realised how tedious such a life would be. Servants did all the work, and except for a few hours schooling each day, I had nothing but sleeping and eating and grooming myself to fill my time. The gentle-born boys of my age had hawking and hunting and riding and training in the arts of war, but girls were expected to wait patiently until they were given in marriage as brood mares for their husbands. […] At about thirteen the blood begins to boil and a dark sap in us begins to rise. I suspect even the most chaste among us begin to be haunted with lewd thought and dreams. I do know that in the beginning, my fantasies of Prince Hamlet centred around acting in plays together, but now I began to have fantasies of a baser nature …

Another novel full of medieval magic and mysticism, and of medieval outsiders (a girl taken from the only life she has known and expected to live as a great lady in the castle of the king, a prince who cannot play the macho role expected of him, a herbalist with a rather too comprehensive collection of poisons) this is a follow-on from The Third Witch. Not a sequel, but another novel written in the same vein: Take a Shakespeare play and rewrite it from the viewpoint of a teenage girl.

It worked well in The Third Witch. At first, I didn’t think it was working so well here. Like Gilly (in The Third Witch), Ophelia is of gentle birth but when the story opens is being brought up in poverty by strangers. Like Gilly, she is full of romantic dreams and crazy schemes. Like Gilly, she is wild, she is totally ruthless, and she will use anyone to gain her ends.

They are both obsessed. Gilly was obsessed with revenge. Ophelia is obsessed with her love for the beautiful, mad prince who spoke to her one day in an idle moment as he passed through the village, and does not even recognise her when, years later, she has been reinstated at the castle as Polonius’ daughter. Her friend and mentor at the castle, the one who transforms her from village hoyden to young lady, is the queen, Gertrude, a rather pathetic figure who is abused by her brutal first husband, King Hamlet.

Yorick shook his head. ‘She doesn’t say him nay, even when he beats her. What can she do now?’
‘She can run away,’
‘And go where?’
‘Anywhere.’
‘She has no family, no money. What can she live on?’
I was sick of his objections. ‘She can learn a trade and take to weaving.’
Amusement flickered in Yorick’s eyes. ‘I don’t think a queen can give over being a queen and take to a trade.’
‘Better that than to stay here and let one of the king’s loyal soldiers toss her over a parapet to her death in the sea.’
‘In the eyes of the law and the church, she’s the king’s property, like his hounds or his boots. She cannot leave him.’

True, but to Ophelia, unacceptable. And it is this that leads to her first murder. For yes, it is Ophelia who puts the poison in Claudius’ hand and thus rids the court of its murderous king and saves the queen’s life.

But one thing leads to another. One death, one murder …

Although I have no reservations about the novel, finally, I have to admit that I am not sure about the title. The one motive Ophelia never has is revenge – though others around her are indeed intent on just that.

Well written, though, and if you enjoyed Rebecca Reisert’s first novel based on a Shakespeare girl, you will enjoy this one.

If there were another in the series, would the next be Juliet, I wonder? And would Juliet, like Ophelia, only seem to die?

THE THIRD WITCH by Rebecca Reisert (Review)

Scotland, mid-11th Century

Impatience rises in me like a bloody tide. ‘Should I seek Him out on the battlefield? Or must I go to His castle?’
Mad Helga only chuckles. With one thick fingernail she flicks a bone into its place.
‘You daft old bat,’ I say, ‘speak plainly!’
Mad Helga holds up a tiny bone. The lower part dangles, broken. ‘See what your impatience has wrought? Once broken, never fully mended.’
‘I shall break your bones, old woman, if you do not answer me.’
Mad helga’s eye continues to twinkle. With the dangling end of the bone she draws a faint pattern in the ashes on the hearth.
‘Heed well, Gilly. These curls here, this is our own wood, Birnam.’ Her voice is suddenly as sane as a tax collector’s. ‘For two days you will travel through it. Until midday on the first day, travel due north. Then turn west for a day and a half. Partway through the morning of the third day, you must leave the wood and take to the road that folk call Old Grapius Road. Follow that road through the hills and mountains. ‘Twill not be an easy journey through the mountains, girl, but the road will lead you through the best passes. Finally you will come to a long silver loch. Travel north past its northernmost shore till you come at last to the castle of Inverness, his northern castle, perched high on a ridge above the firth where he can guard against attack from the loch, river or sea.’
I study the map of ashes, tracing its outlines onto my heart and searing its curves into my memory. Finally I look up. ‘Helga, I do not remember much of castles and their ways.How shall I gain admittance to the castle?’
Mad Helga’s hands thrust out suddenly, spilling the bones into the ashes. Her fingers flash about till the map is erased and the bones soiled and buried in the ashes. ‘Tis your revenge, not mine, lass. I neither know nor care whether you be admitted to his castle or no.’ She begins to rock back and forth, singing, ‘Greymalkin shall not stalk your rest, nor Ulfling seize your – ‘
I close my fingers around her wrists. ‘Stay with me, Mad Helga, just a moment more. Tell me, I beg you, once I gain admittance to the castle, what must I take to bring to you?’
For a long time, Mad Helga is silent. She sits so still that I snake my thumb to the underside of her wrist and press to feel the throb of her pulse to make certain she is still alive.
Then she says, ‘Bring me three pieces of His heart.’

This novel, which is full of medieval magic and mysticism (witchcraft, foreseeing the future, the “Old Ones” speaking through one of the witches) and of medieval outsiders (witches, scavengers gleaning the dead on the battle-field, a backward boy whose mother has been hanged as a witch) is the story of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who, it turns out, were actually named Nettle, Mad Helga and Gillyflower.

Nettle is middle-aged, a herbalist, and blessed with the Sight; and not only that, but on occasion the “Old Ones” speak through her:

Suddenly, […] the room fills with a wave of smell, an odour both sweet and foul, like the stench of a body six days dead. I cover my nose with my hand but the smell is just as strong. I have to fight against gagging. What is happening? I don’t understand it. I look to Nettle and I see that her lips are moving. Then I hear a voice coming out of her mouth, but it is not her voice. It is a voice I have never heard before, a voice that is gnarled and twisted and dry like the root of an ancient oak.
‘You will find what you seek two leagues from Forres.

Mad Helga is the crone of the trio, old, and “as bald as a new-laid egg”. She is also, as her name implies, quite mad (or is that only when the wind blows from the north-north-west?); frequently she speaks in verse (“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”), but when she does so the words she speaks are words of power: they take effect – or at least, come true.

And finally, with them in their hut on the edge of the great forest lives Gillyflower, known as Gilly. She was taken in by them seven years earlier when she was – what? seven? – and her home was destroyed and her warrior father killed by Macbeth. At the time the story opens, she is fourteen and and “grown up” and though now she is dressed in rags and living in a hovel, she still remembers what her life was like when she was a child (“I had forgotten how free and glorious it feels to fly across the countryside when you’re perched atop a horse”), and she seeks to avenge her father and herself. This book is the tale of that revenge.

It is beautifully written, and often un-put-downable and when you have read it you will know all three of them as well as (better than, in most cases) you know your family and friends. In a good, a positive, sense, the play will never be the same again: it adds to the play.

Rebecca Reisert’s next novel lets us in on the hitherto well-kept secrets of another mysterious Shakespeare character: Ophelia. I’ll post a brief review of that one tomorrow.

THE LAST OF THE TEMPLARS by William Watson (Review)

Perhaps not so much in the early Middle Ages, but by the 11th century you were an outsider if the Church either deemed or declared you so. Examples of those “deemed” outsiders would be prostitutes, and the herbalists/wise women/midwives of the villages. It was, of course, easier to deem women outsiders than men because in a sense all women were deemed outsiders but the high-born lady, the respectable wife, the virgin daughter and the nun were insiders at least in the eyes of the average layman. To the layman, it was wolfsheads (outlaws living in the great forests), vagabonds and players and beggars who were the outsiders.

Those the Church declared to be outsiders included heretics and occultists, and indeed any who fell into disfavour with the Church, whatever their station in society. Examples of the highly placed are Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, and “Bad” King John of England, both of whom were excommunicated (the Bruce rightly so in my view, John Lackland with less justification); and the Order of Knights Templar, the richest and most powerful order of them all, who were suddenly declared heretics, excommunicated, arrested and tortured and burnt at the whim of a Pope and of a French king who coveted their wealth: they went from being the most envied of insiders to being the ultimate outsiders almost overnight.

There are several good novels dealing with the fall of the Templars. One of the best is William Watson’s The Last of the Templars.

The story opens in 1291, when Thibaud Gaudin arrives in Sidon after the fall of Acre. He is the Treasurer of the Order of the Temple and has with him the fabled Templar gold. Beltran witnesses his arrival in a leaking hulk during a storm at night, and is instrumental in Thibaud’s election as Grand Master (his predecessor died at Acre).

Then Beltran is deputed to take care of the gold.

It is Beltran’s story, Beltran, who when asked to be (as he rephrases it, disdainfully) “one of those Templars who handle affairs, who manage estates or money, who can traffic in your world”, responds “I am not one of those. I am a monk and a soldier.” And adds: “I am a native, a colonist, what they call a ‘poulain’, and being born in the Holy Land does not make one a citizen of the world.”

But he has been made responsible for the Templar gold. It is the story of Beltran’s guardianship of that gold – and of the Templar Rule – during the period of turmoil that followed their expulsion from the Holy Land, when the Order was libelled and dissolved by Philip the Fair of France and Pope Clement V, the Templars themselves were arrested, tortured and executed, and finally, Jacques de Molay, their last Grand Master, was burned at the stake outside Notre Dame de Paris in 1314.

But there are other stories too, some of them marvellous portraits of historical characters.

For instance, Henry, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem, to whom Thibaud had taught politics when he was twelve years old and who now, at twenty-one, has to receive Thibaud as a supplicant, the Grand Master of an order which, vanquished from the Holy Land, seems to have lost its raîson d’être. And Pope Clement, who tries to warn Hugues Perraud, Visitor of the Order in France (which means top man, under the Grand Master) of the coming onslaught and to justify in advance his own future treachery. And Philip the Fair with his factotum Nogaret: the brilliant dialogue where Nogaret receives his orders regarding the Templars, of which this is one small part:

Nogaret had not felt so well since they had set out upon the affair at Anagni. ‘What you want, Sire, is to see the Order extirpated; not cast down nor weakened nor lessened, but utterly destroyed.’

The king came out of his dream. ‘You have taken my meaning, my good Guillaume. No doubt some device will occur to you?’

Then afterwards, when Philip, believing himself rich, discusses the situation with his Venetian advisers, and finds his hopes dashed:

‘Much of the bank’s business is with crowned heads, Sire, and independent cities, and states of this or that size, Sire, and has come here because of the bank’s impartial, international standing, and that has now been cancelled, Sire, so it is probable that the crowned heads and sovereign states and even the trading cities will mostly withdraw their deposits where they are in credit, Sire, and where they owe, Sire, will be hard to satisfy as to your Majesty’s credentials to receive monies owed to the Temple, Sire, so no, Sire, I would not advise your Majesty to go into banking.’

The whole character of Philip the Fair is so convincing, so memorable, that as far as I am concerned it is the definitive portrait; certainly I shall never be able to see Philip in any other light.

It is a difficult book to get into, perhaps, but I have read a lot of books about the Templars and this is certainly my favourite.

RAIN (by Don Paterson)

I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;

one big thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score
before the act, before the blame,
before the lens pulls through the frame

to where the woman sits alone
beside a silent telephone
or the dress lies ruined on the grass
or the girl walks off the overpass,

and all things flow out from that source
along their fatal watercourse.
However bad or overlong
such a film can do no wrong,

so when his native twang shows through
or when the boom dips into view
or when her speech starts to betray
its adaptation from a play,

I think to when we opened cold
on a starlit gutter, running gold
with the neon of a drugstore sign
and I’d read into its blazing line:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood –
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

HELEN OF TROY DOES COUNTERTOP DANCING (by Margaret Atwood)

Yes, that Margaret Atwood!

Sienna Guillory as Helen of Troy

The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look – my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

RUNAWAY by Evelyn Lau (Review)

Having just reread this marvellous book, and being moved even more by it this time than I was the first time, I am reposting this review I wrote back in January 2011. 

Subtitled “Diary of a Street Kid”, this is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a Chinese-Canadian who, at the age of 14, ran away from an oppressive, loveless home, only to end up, a few weeks later, in a psychiatric hospital. Why? Because she had swallowed thirty aspirin in an attempt to commit suicide.

I remember feeling superior in the waiting room, dismissing the psychiatric patients as crazies I’d never have to join. There was the scrawny Chinese woman with the greasy hair, the mumbling Caucasian woman with the wiglike hair she brushed from her face with nervous hands. Loonies. I was going to get out; I belonged to the outside world.

Then they hand me hospital clothing, dull blue, and the walls begin to spin. […] The Chinese woman runs to me in her fluffy yellow slippers that remind me involuntarily of Big Bird (just another way of degrading the patients here), holding me, her sharp face begging, ‘Don’t hurt her. Please don’t hurt her.’ The man on duty drags me to the floor, so used to doing it that he no longer needs a reason. […] I make a run for the washroom […] A nurse forces her way through the bathroom door, then another; white-clad nurses spill into the bathroom, murmuring, hands searching my pockets for sharp objects. I’m kicking, screaming, crying, wrenched from former freedom.

I’d rather be living on the streets, standing in puddles of glistening black and neon – at least I’d be free. […]

A deaf, dumb and blind woman performs the Thorazine shuffle endlessly, methodically, from early morning till bedtime.

At last she is released into the care of the parents she has come to hates. And immediately runs away again.

Two a.m at the bus depot. […] Unshaven men are my company tonight, picking out items from the garbage can in front of me. […] Two strangers pull up in their car and ask if I need a ride and do I give head […] It’s graduation night for three of the High Schools in the district, and everyone is either drunk or high. The girls laugh at Death, hair wild in their faces in the limousines, while the guys in their tuxedos feel like men. I’m sure the men in this depot don’t feel so grown up […]

Now I’m in a restaurant; at least it’s warm. […]

The staff in this place just kicked out a derelict in his tattered, stained clothing, who apparently seeks out this restaurant each night to slump into a chair and try to sleep. I beg them to let him stay, offering to buy him food, but they refuse and then gossip in the kitchen. […]

The restaurant closes and I migrate to a twenty-four hour coffee shop, where I meet the derelict again, drinking coffee and shaking. Beside me at the counter, he asks tentatively, ‘Can I touch your leg?’ and places his fingers there in a curiously obligatory manner, as if he had to because I was female. I shake my head tiredly. He takes his fingers back in silence, and doesn’t try again.

That is just the beginning. Soon the drugs begin. Then the “giving head” to get money for the drugs … She too becomes “a derelict”.

But I am not approaching this right. I am giving the wrong impression. Let me start again:

This is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a writer who had it much harder than most. Living in a garret is nothing to this. Her day job was giving head to jerks who picked her up in their cars, then, gradually, as she became known, her own clientele. The day job, I stress. (Or should I say night job.) Because all the time she was writing. This wonderful diary is only the half of it. She was also writing poetry. Winning prizes! Even giving readings!

When she first ran away, at the age of 14, the Vancouver Sun splashed her on their front page with the words “I’ve never met a kid who could write like that” – “the only kind words they allow,” Evelyn comments. But the reporter was right.

And the closing paragraph of the book says it all: If I had saved the story of my adolescence to write when I was older, it would have been a very different book …

It would indeed. And that it was written at the time is its beauty. It is not a book by a writer about the life of a street kid. It is not a book by your ordinary, everyday, inarticulate street kid. It is a book by a writer written while she was living as, no, while she was a street kind. It reminds me of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. He was down and out in London and Paris. Like Evelyn, he had known the comfortable life of the relatively wealthy. Like Evelyn, he was now authentically down and out, on the street. And like Evelyn, he was a great writer.

Think of it, then, as Down and Out in Vancouver and New York. (Yes, she spends a while in New York, too.)

It is really something very special.

CURRICULUM VITAE (by Alissa Leigh)

My education proper began
when my friend’s brother
strolled into the bedroom
wearing nothing but
a tumbler of whiskey

I was born in mid-winter.
A bird obscured the sun.
It was a public holiday:
rubbish stood uncollected
in the streets of the capital.
The soldiers sat smoking
around their mountain fires.
My mother wore red,
the doctors wore white,
my father came running.
My education proper began
when my friend’s brother
strolled into the bedroom
wearing nothing but
a tumbler of whiskey. I
kissed his knees and feet –
from then on, it was just one
mad success after another.
Prizes in math and ethnic
understanding. Not the first
in my year to wear a bra
but not the last, either. At
our graduation ceremony,
I recited Sappho’s poem
“Day in, day out I
hunger and struggle”
bringing tears to the eyes
of many. I believe I am
suitable for the position of
his majesty’s concubine
for several reasons. I
rarely speak: since I
left school I’ve spoken
on only two occasions:
once to reject an offer
of marriage, the second
to argue the matter with
my parents. I felt that
greater things awaited me.
It’s said the emperor likes
games of flight and capture.
If I may say so without
being thought immodest,
I’m an accomplished prey.

PARANOIA (by Michael Dennis Browne)

If you go to the zoo, be sure to take your passport

When you drive on the freeway, cars follow you.

Someone opens your mail, two hands
that come out of your shirt-sleeves.

Your dog looks at you, he does not like you.

At the driving test the cop is tired. He has sat up
all night, screening your dreams.

If you go to the zoo, be sure to take your passport.

Everywhere you go, the dog goes with you. Beautiful women
come up to you and ask for the dog’s telephone number.

You go to teach; everyone who passes you in the corridor
knows you never finished Tristram Shandy.
You are the assistant professor no one associates with.

At the yoga class you finally get
into the lotus position.
You are carried home.

When you close your eyes in meditation, all you see is breasts.

When you turn the refrigerator to defrost, the TV drips.

Across the street, the pigeons call softly to each other
like the FBI on a stakeout.

When you walk to the post office and see the flag at half-mast
you know you have died.

THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE (by W. B. Yeats)

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, and a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.