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LizzieBennet

Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

SPOILER ALERT!

A Wounded Name

A Wounded Name - Dot Hutchison

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: A Hamlet retelling, from Ophelia's point of view, delving beautifully into her fragile mind, with only a few debut hiccups along the way.

 

Carolrhoda Lab shoutout. I've so far enjoyed every Carolrhoda Lab book I've read, even the flawed ones. Andrew Karre (the editor) has interesting, brave taste, and I always feel stimulated reading his list. Being medium-sized means he can take risks, and the YA lit world is better off for it. Dot Hutchison's A Wounded Name is no exception--aiming for something big, something rich with character and theme, and mostly succeeding.

 

The plot: see Hamlet, of course. But in this retelling the "king," Hamlet senior, is the director of a boarding school somewhere on the East Coast. His son Dane has been friends with Ophelia for years, but during the course of the novel they become intimate, and as Dane's sanity unwinds, his dependence on Ophelia (and abuse of her) escalates. Ophelia has already drowned once in this story: her mother committed suicide with little Ophelia in her arms (or went to join the morgens, whichever version you subscribe to, real or magical), and Ophelia was rescued by Hamlet, who could not also save her mother. Since then, Ophelia has been able to visit and speak with her mother and the morgens, who live in the drowned city of Ys. Her mother wants her to join them. Ophelia resists, feeling she still has some tenuous ties to this life. We know she won't resist forever, however. Ophelia also sees the eternal huntsmen in the forest, and of course she sees Hamlet's ghost, which in this story is cleaved into two parts--peaceful and vengeful. The vengeful half goads Dane into taking revenge. Both Ophelia and Dane take prescribed medications to keep their demons at bay, which I also thought was a nice modern touch.

 

The risk of Shakespeare. Shakespeare adaptations are awkward beasts, because the plots of Shakespeare's plays are themselves almost never original to Shakespeare, but are old stories and traditions that Shakespeare liked and adapted himself. What makes his plays "original" is his exquisite language and nuance. It makes me wonder whether the best "retellings" are actually the ones like the movie Clueless, which disguised Jane Austen's Emma with such a fresh take, you weren't bothering to make point-by-point comparisons.

 

In A Wounded Name, the word-for-wording of famous phrases and fragments of soliloquies thus became a bit of a problem for me. Polonius's goodbye lecture to his son (Ophelia's brother), Laertes, actually contains the words, "neither a borrower or a lender be," "above all else, to thine own self be true," and Dane's words to Horatio on a walk together include, "there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The "get thee to a nunnery" speech is paraphrased, too, as "Go to a convent, Ophelia." Dane says these precise words: "To be or not to be" and also, "'The play's the thing,' he said. 'The show must go on.'"
 
A little jarring: this is a world where Shakespeare exists. How does that work? Polonius says that when he was a teenager he was in Julius Caesar, and someone (Polonius again, perhaps?) mentions that "brevity is the soul of wit."
 

What I loved: Ophelia. I loved that she was already essentially dead in the book. It eased the knowledge that she'd die again, especially because she knew it, but it also made her so otherworldly--so deeply ephemeral, like the raw emotions you'd expect to be the last fragments that a soul leaves on the planet before it disappears. She was already nearly a ghost, and you could see it in the way she barely ate, she didn't register as a person in a crowd, she didn't bother to get to know her classmates, and the way her body was so fragile, so barely existent and easily crushed. I think it's brave and true the way Hutchison ended our view of the world with her death. We know what will happen because Ophelia already knows what will happen. And she knows that this is the moment to take herself away as a tool for Claudius to use against Dane. If you think of Ophelia as already dead, you can forgive how weak-willed she seems to be and see her more as a powerless observer. 

 
I also appreciated Dane's inner torment, and the way he was both mad and extremely lucid--how his dual personality tortured and treasured Ophelia, how he hated himself for it, but couldn't stop himself--he was the living embodiment of his father's sundered soul. I loved Horatio's goodness, and how he wanted Dane but was happy to be his friend and to support him unequivocally, without intimacy. And I liked the choice of setting it in a school to bring it to a YA audience.
 
Finally, I liked the way Hutchison ties in a feminist cause with the arrival of the Fortinbras, who will inevitably usher in equal education for women at the school. (Currently the boys study real subjects while the girls are essentially at a finishing school for future wives of politicians, lawyers, and doctors.)
 
The characters were complex, gray. There was a lot of passion. And there were excellent, veiled sex scenes. I'm not sure how Hutchison did it...putting sex right there on the page in visual detail but not putting it on the page. Those sections were magic, pure and simple.
 

Of course I had problems. Why didn't the gardener reveal to anyone in authority that he had found the syringe in the bushes? Why is it Ophelia's job to make the accusation? If he brought up what he found, Ophelia's follow-up testimony would have been that Claudius was the first at the scene of Hamlet's death. Of course it can't work that way if we're following Shakespeare's story, but in the present day, evidence of a murder wouldn't just be handed over to a teenage girl, to keep in her dresser or the pocket of her dress, fondling it.

 
Also, Laertes arrives back from France initially angry at Claudius for Polonius's death, but redirects his anger at Dane and conspires with Claudius to kill Dane. When did that switch happen? In the play, I think Claudius persuades Laertes that Hamlet is the only one responsible, but we don't see that persuasion clearly here.
 
Problems with the writing.
 
While I loved it that Ophelia was fragile and ghost-like, we got mired in too many uses of the words "bruise, bruised, bruising:"
 
Makes my eyes huge bruises against my face.
 
Bruise-colored eyes (and hair, and gown).
 
There were repeated descriptions:
 
night-purple hair
laced fingers
eyes bright with tears

 

Repeated imagery also becomes a bit heavy-handed: Dane is "The sun where my heart should be" "The sun...burns me till I'm a heap of blistered flesh." "I can feel the star spin where my own heart should be." Color-modifiers are repeated: ice blue, and dead blue. Food becomes ashes in her mouth so many times, it eventually goes without saying!
  
Hutchison also faltered in telling us (again and again) thematic things we can see, or that we understood the first time:
 
Dane needs me.
 
I'm never the one who leaves.
 
Laertes' nervous chatter: he's the only one who can't stand amiable silence.
 
Copyediting issues. With otherwise lyrical prose, the repeated words that the editors failed to weed out were jarring: "he grips Horatio's hand with a white-knuckled grip." "It's never seemed important to know the names of the people I'll never truly know." "He's the best of us. And I'm a selfish beast who destroys the people I love the best."
 
In sum. An ambitious debut, a fascinating Ophelia, and an interesting, serious read.