Titan Books, 13 June 2017
PB, e, 428pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.
We are frequently told publishing is getting more and more safe and bland. I don't know whether or not that's actually true - It's big! There's lots of it! - but a book like this is certainly evidence of the opposite.
Taking an idea, and written in a style, that would surely be struck down if one were merely concerned about populist success, this is a thriller that glories - in both form and content - in Shakespeare and of the theatre.
Oliver is a young student at a prestigious US arts conservatory. Dellecher reads a little like a Hogwarts for thespians - complete with a Gothic style castle, a local bar (the 'Bore's Head' - a Shakespeare joke) and extensive grounds, including a lake.
The theatrical training is rigorous, and the acting students are the crème de la crème with the 4th years at the very top of the social scale: every year, students are weeded and the survivors expected to shine. A quirk of Delecher is that only Shakespeare is taught and played: there's something of a culty atmosphere with lines of his dialogue snapped back and forth (either in their original form or tweaked on the fly) between the students. At times I felt a bit inadequate for not knowing where they all (or, I'll admit it, most of them) came from. I'm sure it would add to one's appreciation of the story to know, but it was still perfectly accessible - and, as I said, this feature of the language helps establish just how inward looking the college is.
That's supported by the scant information we get about the students' backgrounds. We only learn a little about Oliver and in a couple of memorable scenes, see his family - his troubled elder sister who is clearly anorexic and his younger sister, desperate for his help and support. Oliver pretty much cold-shoulders them: he's a fascinating central character but does seem rather emotionally distant which becomes a key theme as the college year passes and a heady emotional brew begins to simmer.
Since this book is riffing off Shakespeare, a key ingredient of that brew is, of course, jealousy. Professional (well, studental) jealousy over parts, roles and prominence; personal jealousy over lovers and status. In a narrow, already cliquey setting the temperature rises quickly (fuelled perhaps by the students' prodigious appetite for substances, of various sorts - no, despite what I said, we're really not in Hogwarts now). With passion to be portrayed on stage, there are many opportunities for personal disputes to bleed over into what is acted out, creating an atmosphere of danger and possibility that is fairly crackling and sparking by the middle of the book.
I should add that the story is narrated by Oliver ten years later as he is released from prison. That isn't a spoiler as it's established in the first few lines of the book. Why he was there is what unfolds in the book - and there are many other twists involved that I won't describe because this is above all a high stakes, tense thriller.
What I will say is that it's here Rio really brings Shakespeare to her storytelling. The quoting of lines, the extracts from the plays that the students are performing, adds atmosphere but isn't the heart of the matter. What is key is the structuring, the giving of life to the themes of the plays and above all, the way that the students live dual - or do I mean triple? - lives, playing their own roles, their parts in the plays and, perhaps, somewhere underneath, being real people. And doing all this consciously. It all makes for a powerful, at times almost creepy, experience (in one scene there's a dramatic confrontation in a panelled, candlelit library) not least because we know from the plays some of the bad things that can happen in this invented world.
In a wider, and deeper, respect she's aided of course by the storytelling genius of Shakespeare himself and by his sheer ubiquity in our culture. Yes, it might be an advantage to have read or seen the plays but even if you haven't, you'll know enough of the themes, the characters, the situations that underlie this story.
I said above that this book is far from being safe or bland publishing. I wouldn't want to be taken as my meaning it's difficult or inaccessible - I don't. It is a very different book, one that takes a little getting into, but once you do that, it is just so rewarding.
A strong recommendation from me, then, and kudos to both ML Rio and to Titan for doing something new and fresh.