Let me preface my review with two statements. First, I am not a Shakespearean scholar, but I do know the Scottish play quite well since I studied it in university and taught it at least a dozen times in my 30-year career as an English teacher. My students were often given writing-in-role assignments in which they assumed the identity of a character from the play and described an event from his/her point of view. As a result, I was very keen to read this novel which resembles an extended writing-in-role assignment. Second, this review is based on a digital advance reading copy provided by the publisher so perhaps the problems I have with the book will be corrected before publication.
The first part of the book is the story of Gruoch’s (Lady Macbeth) childhood, young adulthood, and first marriage. This section is interesting in that the author imagines formative events which presumably shaped her personality and so influenced her behaviour as an adult. Her status as “a princess of the Clan Gabhran,” her independent streak which she claims made her “reliant on no man,” and her learning that “if life were to be fair to me, I would have to ensure it by my own actions” all affect her attitude to life in later years. Her sleepwalking and obsession with cleansing her hands of blood are foreshadowed. The author’s imaginative speculations are interesting although I do have some quibbles. Is it likely that Gruoch can remember “vividly” her father’s first words to her when she was “five minutes old”? When she first sees Macbeth, she says “he was not yet fourteen years old” and later she even tells him, “I saw you once when you were only fourteen years old.” Why does she speak with such certainty? Later she learns that he must have been around sixteen. When she learns that Macbeth is married, she says, “Macbeth’s young wife still lives.” How does she know his wife is young?
These objections are minor; my real problems with the book arise in the second half which outlines Gruoch’s life with Macbeth; in essence Part II is Lady Macbeth’s view of the events described in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Several times the sequence of events makes no sense. For example, the plan is to kill Duncan but make it seem like his guards killed him. In the novel, however, Macbeth kills Duncan and the guards at the same time. No one would think the guards are guilty if they are found dead along with their master! When the murder is discovered, Lennox describes the guards as having glazed eyes “with a confused expression in them” and Macbeth says, “I am sorry now that I killed them in my fury.” He kills the guards a second time? They really weren’t dead even though Lady Macbeth had commented on the blood “gushing out of the necks of the dead guards” when she went to plant the daggers on them? And at the time of Duncan’s murder, does it make sense that Lady Macbeth would wake everyone by “leap[ing] up and seiz[ing] the rope to the tower clock and yank[ing] it again and again”? There is a difference between ringing a bell that only Macbeth will hear as a signal and ringing a bell that will alarm everyone.
There are other such illogical descriptions. At one point Gruoch describes a portrait painted of her. She says, “With both arms, I am proudly holding my massive golden crown over my head.” This is a strange pose for a portrait but then it is confused by the artist’s capturing of a gesture “in which one of my hands clutches the other, as if to say I must refrain from trying to wash away Duncan’s blood.” She can’t be clutching the crown and rubbing her hands at the same time.
After the murder, Lady Macbeth sees her husband, “his gaze fixed on his bloody hands, and his fingers began to rub against each other as he tried to wipe off the wet, sticky blood.” Shortly afterwards, she says, “Macbeth turned around and, from behind his back, brought forward two hands, the dripping daggers clasped between them.” Where are the daggers when she first sees his hands?
During the planning of Banquo and Fleance’s murders, there are additional problems. Lady Macbeth identifies Fleance’s mother as Lady Macduff?! Before the banquet in Banquo’s honour, Macbeth speaks about having a “cabinet meeting” that afternoon but then he announces “that his peers should do as they wished until 7 o’clock.” What happened to the meeting? Then when Banquo’s ghost should appear, Macbeth refers to “Duncan’s ghost”?
I could go on and on with these inconsistencies. As already mentioned, I read an advance reading copy so some of these errors will hopefully be corrected, but the number of such errors is unsettling. It is not that the author needs to reproduce Shakespeare’s play, but events should occur logically.
I am also bothered by the anachronisms that make an appearance in the novel. For instance, in a nod to Shakespeare, the author has Macbeth compose a sonnet for his new bride. The problem is that the Macbeths live in the eleventh century, but the sonnet form was not invented until a couple of centuries later. (I am aware that anachronisms appear in Shakespeare’s plays, but wouldn’t a writer try to avoid them?) “Hell is learning the truth too late” is a Biblical quotation? Then there is the diction which often sounds out of place. Terms and phrases such as “dining room” and “sperm” and “calcified” and “hollered” and “bathrooms” and “hoodlums” and “ooh-ing and ah-ing” and “takes a back seat” and “a spoiled brat” and “cabinet meeting” do not ring true to the eleventh century.
The writing style is repetitious. When describing herself, Lady Macbeth says, “I have not been a bad person. I spent a lifetime giving generously to charities, my home always was open for the homeless and the hungry, and I encouraged Macbeth to embark on a holy crusade to Rome, where he scattered money among the poor like seed.” When describing her husband, she uses almost the same words: “He was a good man . . . He was kind to the impoverished, and actually scattered money like seed to the poor when we visited the pope in Rome.”
A didactic tone is occasionally detected. For example, “Bodhe also had arranged for three Kellachs to be pulled by the horses. These were wooden carts with wheels pinned together at the edges . . . ” Is this second sentence really needed? And why the past tense in the definition? At another point she launches into an explanation of churches in Scotland: “There is no single, organized church in Scotland. The churches are regional, reflecting the different religions of the various people who make up Scotland.” Such information might be interesting, but is it something someone would mention in her life story? Then there are statements like, “As was the custom in ancient Scotland, everybody ate from one large pot.” A person living in a particular time is not likely going to refer to that period of time as “ancient.”
For me, this book was disappointing. There were some suggestions as to the formation of Lady Macbeth’s character but insufficient to be convincing and fully explain her actions. Her contradictory references to both her “superior masculinity” and her “innate feminine softness” just confuse the psychological portrait. I’m afraid I would not recommend this book to people looking for a better understanding of this (in)famous literary character.