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.