THE SHAKESPEARE CURSE by JL Carrell (Sphere, 2010)
Reviewed by Darise Ogden
I have a bit of a thing for Shakespeare. Okay, a big thing. So a thriller focusing on the Scottish play (my particular all-time favourite) was going to be impossible to ignore. The Shakespeare Curse is the sequel to The Shakespeare Secret. I’ve read both in the last two months – both were compelling, page-turning, and utterly consuming.
Couple a fiery-haired heroine with a quest dogged with heinous deaths tied mysteriously to the Bard, and you’ve got a story that will keep you up at all hours (even, dare I admit it, causing you to be late dropping your son off for school). Kate Stanley was a talented academic who gave it all up for the lure of the stage. When we first meet her in The Shakespeare Secret, she is in the process of directing Hamlet at the Globe. Her former friend and mentor arrives, pressing a gift into her hand. It’s a gift that hints at a lost Shakespearean manuscript – a play that has disappeared from the canon, with nothing more than a whisper of its existence that tantalizes Shakespearean scholars who hunger to be the one to bring a newly discovered treasure back from oblivion. It’s a secret manuscript that someone is prepared to kill for – again and again, leaving bodies scattered across both the UK and the US.
The first novel opened with the burning of the Globe – both in the seventeenth century and in the twenty-first; the second has dedicated itself to all things Wiccan, all under the watchful gaze of the Samhuinn moon. The deaths in The Shakespeare Secret resemble the great Shakespearean deaths of the tragedies; in The Shakespeare Curse, it is death by sacrifice – at the cut of a blade with a thirst for blood.
Once again, it is a lost (or hidden) manuscript that invokes this blood-thirst. In those lost years, when Shakespeare seems to have disappeared from the London scene, what was it that he was doing? Was he, perhaps, ensconced in a castle in the hinterlands of Scotland, watching from behind curtains as a woman with powers unnatural sought to wrest the crown from the young king of Scotland? Did that knowledge inform MacBeth? Was a power invoked that would turn him from a simple glover’s son into the Bard?
To be fair, I’m not a big thriller fan – I can’t say I’ve ever read a Dan Brown novel (I’ve barely made it through the Tom Hanks’ movies). But there are twists aplenty in both novels – twists I didn’t really see coming. Friends become enemies in the blink of an eye – or the slitting of a throat. Kate is repeatedly manipulated, played like one of the Kings’ Men, as she is drawn into the worlds emanating out of Shakespeare’s creations.
With a PhD in English from Harvard (and undergraduate degrees from Oxford and Stanford), Carrell is particularly adept at bringing the two worlds of the novel together. The ‘interludes’, as she calls them, take you back to the sixteenth century – where you watch the Machiavellian characters, who influenced Shakespeare, manipulate the world around them, seeking advancement, wealth, and position within a Court that trades on reputation and rumour and suspicion. Desires remain the same – whether they originate out of the sixteenth or twenty-first centuries.
Carrell has become my guilty pleasure.
This review was published in today's print issue of NZLawyer magazine, and is reprinted here with permission.