Something wicked this way comes… Jo Nesbo is the latest author to tackle the retelling of Shakespeare’s plays as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which features writers such as Anne Tyler, Margaret Attwood, Tracey Chevalier and Howard Jacobsen. (If I was famous enough to do a re-tell of a Shakespeare play, I’d do Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice is a badass.)
Nesbo’s re-telling is a mighty tome; in this version, Shakespeare’s shortest play becomes a 600 page novel- but that isn’t to its detriment. Instead, Nesbo explores some of the themes we see glimpses of in the original: the psychology behind the relationships between the characters, their backstories and the society that drives them. And what a grim society it is, too- set in the 1970s in a northern European city (Nesbo goes into detail in the video below, although his interviewer keeps going back to it being Scotland…) more Gotham City than gentrified, the events unfold in the middle of a drugs war. Police are corrupt, everyone’s hooked on something and casinos are king.
Macbeth is a member of the SWAT team when a drugs bust masterminded by Duff goes horribly wrong. His bravery and loyalty- and his outsider status- is quickly rewarded for his part in rescuing the mission. With his partner, shady and ambitious casino owner Lady, he quickly spirals into a bloody and violent nightmare.
Of all the Shakespeare plays I taught during my years teaching, Macbeth is the one I know the best and the one I know pretty much line-by-line. As I’ve been reading it, it brought to mind the excellent Patrick Stewart version, a dark and grim take on the play that made me feel intensely uncomfortable when I saw it (twice last year, because I wasn’t miserable enough, apparently.) I’ll admit, I was a bit wary of reading it too- it’s been a year since I left teaching and I still haven’t shaken some of it off, but I’ve been sucked into the story quickly, as well as enjoying spotting familiar characters (alas, poor Banquo) Shakespearean lines dotted in the text: “Macbeth doth murder sleep” is given a new twist at the last minute. I’ve always been convinced that one of the reasons Macbeth resonates so much with me is that I often have raging bouts of insomnia. So many people not sleeping in this play, although my sleeplessness is admittedly not because I’ve ever murdered anyone on the say so of witches.
What I hope will happen with this novel is that the title won’t put those off who loathed Shakespeare at school. I know that not everyone was as weird a kid as me when it came to the Bard. But fear not- those who love Jo Nesbo’s work, or gritty crime novels with ambiguous heroes will enjoy this. Bill just gave Jo the headstart.
Buy Macbeth by Jo Nesbo here (non-affiliate link)