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We’ve had it wrong all these years. Ophelia did not meet a muddy death where the willow grew aslant a brook but, with the help of a vial of mandragora and a trusty herbalist, she fled the rottenness of Denmark to live another day in France. For two-thirds of the novel, however, we revisit a dangerous Elsinore through Ophelia’s eyes. Klein provides her heroine with a romantic narrative voice which certainly evokes a period other than our own: ‘the great banquet hall, warmed by leaping fires, where courtiers passed like lifeblood through a heart’ or ‘Hope, so long crushed, rose up in my breast’. The publishers clearly have a target in mind, as the cover urges the bookshop browser towards ‘a passionate and heartbreaking tale of forbidden love’. Occasionally, lines or echoes of Shakespeare nudge their way a little uneasily into the story (‘“Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” I found myself crying in a loud voice.’).
The author acknowledges ‘with gratitude the students who, over the years, helped feed my imagination as we studied Hamlet together’ and there is a sense that she is reverently enamoured of every dark corner of the play, that it has entered her bloodstream. At times, the language becomes a constraining artifice, running close to what Geoffrey Trease used to call ‘tushery’. The book’s structure does not allow much illumination of Hamlet himself, for the antic disposition confuses poor Ophelia along with everyone else, and her first person viewpoint precludes insight into the prince’s mind. But the novel interestingly extends the characters of Polonius, Gertrude and Horatio who, since he’s the only one left standing, has a part to play in the most engaging section of the novel, Ophelia’s postscript life abroad.