I was very intrigued by this book and well… Here is the review, finally.
Macbeth by Jo Nesbo
JO NESBO: #1 Sunday Times bestseller, #1 New York Times bestseller, 40 million books sold worldwide
He’s the best cop they’ve got.
When a drug bust turns into a bloodbath it’s up to Inspector Macbeth and his team to clean up the mess.
He’s also an ex-drug addict with a troubled past.
He’s rewarded for his success. Power. Money. Respect. They’re all within reach.
But a man like him won’t get to the top.
Plagued by hallucinations and paranoia, Macbeth starts to unravel. He’s convinced he won’t get what is rightfully his.
Unless he kills for it.
“Majestically satisfying…a deliciously oppressive page-turner” (Steven Poole Guardian)
“Immensely enjoyable and gloriously dark… He has accomplished that toughest of literary feats: putting his own unmistakable mark on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays” (Matt Gibson Daily Express)
“Inventive and deeply satisfying… a dark but ultimately hopeful Macbeth, one suited to our own troubled times” (James Shapiro New York Times Book Review)
“Nesbo makes excellent use of all the atmosphere of his genre, and the stakes at play are every bit as convincing as those in the original… This is Nesbo doing what he’s good at” (Lucy Scholes Independent)
“Macbeth as a SWAT team leader. His wife as a former prostitute. The three witches as drug dealers. It’s Shakespeare’s darkest tale — reimagined by the king of Nordic noir” (Graeme Thomson Mail on Sunday)
“Majestically satisfying…a deliciously oppressive page-turner”
“Immensely enjoyable and gloriously dark… He has accomplished that toughest of literary feats: putting his own unmistakable mark on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays”
“Inventive and deeply satisfying… a dark but ultimately hopeful Macbeth, one suited to our own troubled times”
“Nesbo makes excellent use of all the atmosphere of his genre, and the stakes at play are every bit as convincing as those in the original… This is Nesbo doing what he’s good at”
“Macbeth as a SWAT team leader. His wife as a former prostitute. The three witches as drug dealers. It’s Shakespeare’s darkest tale — reimagined by the king of Nordic noir”
About the author:
The gripping new thriller from the author of The Snowman
Jo Nesbo is one of the world’s bestselling crime writers, with The Leopard, Phantom, Police, The Son and his latest Harry Hole novel, The Thirst, all topping the Sunday Times bestseller charts. He’s an international number one bestseller and his books are published in 50 languages, selling over 33 million copies around the world.
Before becoming a crime writer, Nesbo played football for Norway’s premier league team Molde, but his dream of playing professionally for Spurs was dashed when he tore ligaments in his knee at the age of eighteen. After three years of military service, he attended business school and formed the band Di derre (‘Them There’). They topped the charts in Norway, but Nesbo continued working as a financial analyst, crunching numbers during the day and gigging at night. When commissioned by a publisher to write a memoir about life on the road with his band, he instead came up with the plot for his first Harry Hole crime novel, The Bat.
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Thanks to NetGalley and to Vintage Digital for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This book is part of the Hogarth’s Shakespeare project, a project designed to create novels based on some of Shakespeare’s original plays and bring them up-to-date thanks to best-selling novelists. Although I have been intrigued since I’d heard about the project (because I am a fan of some of the authors, like Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler), this is the first of the novels to come out of the project that I’ve read. Evidently, the idea behind the series was to try and bring new readers to Shakespeare and perhaps combine people interested in the plays with followers of the novelists. My case is a bit peculiar. I love Shakespeare (I prefer his tragedies and his comedies to the rest of his work) but I can’t say I’m an authority on him, and although I’ve read some of his plays, I prefer to attend live performances or watch adaptations (I’ve watched quite a few versions of Hamlet, but not so many of the rest of his plays, by poor chance). I’ve only watched Macbeth a couple of times, so I’m not the best person to comment on how closely Nesbo’s book follows the original. On the other hand, I have not read any of the author’s novels. I’ve watched a recent movie adaptation of one of them (mea culpa, I had not checked the reviews beforehand) but, although I know of him, I cannot compare this novel to the rest of his oeuvre. So I’m poorly qualified to write this review from the perspective of the most likely audience. But, that’s never stopped me before, and this review might perhaps be more relevant to people who are not terribly familiar with either, Macbeth or Nesbo’s books.
From my vague memory of the play, the novel follows the plot fairly closely, although it is set in the 1970s, in a nightmarish and corrupt city (some of the reviewers say it’s a Northern city somewhere not specified. That is true, and although some of the names and settings seem to suggest Scotland, not all details match, for sure), where unemployment is a huge problem, as are drugs, where biker gangs murder at leisure and control the drug market (together with a mysterious and shady character called Hecate, that seems to pull the strings in the background. He’s not a witch here but there’s something otherworldly about him), where the train station has lost its original purpose and has become a den where homeless and people addicted to drugs hung together and try to survive. The police force takes the place of the royalty and the nobles in the original play, with murders, betrayals and everything in between going on in an attempt at climbing up the ladder and taking control of law-enforcement (with the interesting side-effect of blurring any distinction between law and crime), with the city a stand-in for the kingdom of Scotland in the original.
The story is told from many of the characters’ points of view (most of them) and there is a fair amount of head-hopping. Although as the novel advances we become familiar with the characters and their motivations, and it is not so difficult to work out who is thinking what, this is not so easy to begin with as there are many characters with very similar jobs and, at least in appearance, close motivations, so it’s necessary to pay close attention. The technique is useful to get readers inside the heads of the characters and to get insights into their motivations, even if in most cases it is not a comfortable or uplifting experience. The book is truly dark and it seems particularly apt to a moment in history when corruption, morality, and the evil use of power are as relevant as ever. (Of course, the fact that this is an adaptation of a play written centuries before our era brings home that although things might change in the surface, human nature does not change so much). The writing is at times lyrical and at others more down to earth, but it is a long book, so I’d advise readers to check a sample to see if it is something they’d enjoy for the long-haul. I’ll confess that when I started the book I wondered if it was for me, but once I got into the story and became immersed in the characters’ world, I was hooked.
The beauty of having access to the material in a novelised form is that we can get to explore the characters’ subjectivity and motivations, their psychology, in more detail than in a play. Shakespeare was great at creating characters that have had theatregoers thinking and guessing for hundreds of years, but much of it is down to the actors’ interpretation, and two or three hours are not space enough to explore the ins-and-outs and the complex relationships between the characters fully. I was particularly intrigued by Duff, who is not a particularly likeable character, to begin with, but comes into his own later. I liked Banquo, who is, with Duncan, one of the few characters readers will feel comfortable rooting for (Banquo’s son and Angus would fall into the same category, but play smaller parts), and I must warn you that there is no such as thing as feeling comfortable reading this book. I thought what Nesbo does with Lady is interesting and provides her with an easier to understand motivation and makes her more sympathetic than in the play (it is not all down to greed or ambition, although it remains a big part of it). No characters are whiter-than-white (some might be but we don’t get to know them well enough to make that call), and although the baddies might be truly bad, some remain mysterious and unknown, and they are portrayed as extreme examples of the corruption that runs rampant everywhere. Most of the rest of the characters are human, good and bad, and many come to question their lives and what moves them and take a stand that makes them more interesting than people who never deviate from the path of rightness. Macbeth is depicted as a man of contrasts, charitable and cruel, a survivor with a difficult past, perhaps easy to manipulate but driven, full of doubts but determined, addicted to drugs and ‘power’, charismatic and dependent, full of contradictions and memorable.
The ending of the novel is bittersweet. It is more hopeful than the rest of the novel would make us expect, but… (I am not sure I could talk about spoilers in this novel, but still, I’ll keep my peace). Let’s just say this couldn’t have a happy ending and be truthful to the original material.
Although I have highlighted several paragraphs, I don’t think they would provide a fair idea of the novel in isolation, and, as I said before, I recommend downloading or checking a sample to anybody considering the purchase of this novel.
Not knowing Nesbo’s other novels, I cannot address directly his fans. I’ve noticed that quite a number of reviewers who read his novels regularly were not too fond of this one. Personally, I think it works as an adaptation of the Shakespeare play and it is very dark, as dark as the plot of the original requires (and perhaps even more). It is long and it is not an easy-going read. There are no light moments, and it is demanding of the reader’s attention, challenging us to go beyond a few quotations, famous phrases, and set scenes, to the moral heart of the play. If you are looking for an interesting, although perhaps a not fully successful version of Macbeth, that will make you think about power, corruption, good and evil, family, friendship, and politics, give it a try. I am curious to read more Nesbo’s novels and some of the other novels in the project.
On a personal note, as I was reading this novel, the relationship between Macbeth and Banquo brought to my mind one of the novellas included in Escaping Psychiatry, Teamwork. Readers have described it as noir, and it is fairly twisted. Here is a sample:
“Who is this Justin, then?” Mary asked.
“Oh…Poor guy. He’s going through a really hard time. He comes from a very traumatic background. One of Tom’s men, Sgt. David Leaman…did you meet him?…took him under his wing and…treated him like a son. A truly good job he did with him. Recently…about two months ago, they were working together in a case and…Sgt. Leaman was killed. Tom is quite concerned about Justin, who seems to have reacted very weirdly to the whole thing. He just wants to go back to work, won’t talk to anybody, won’t have counselling…”
So that was it. An informal consultation. That’s what Tom wanted. Fair enough, but at least he could have told her. However hard she tried to leave psychiatry behind and get on with her other career, it didn’t seem to work. She was always pulled back.
“Is it nearly ready?” Tom asked from the dining-room.
Dinner was somewhat weird. It was evident that Justin wasn’t a regular visitor to the house and didn’t quite know what to say. And he didn’t seem the talkative type either. He was sitting opposite Mary, and asked her:
“Doctor in what?”
“Literature and film, aren’t you?” Tom replied for her. Once Tom got distracted by his wife’s conversation she added:
“I also studied Medicine. And Psychiatry. I still work at it sometimes.”
She’d hit the target. His face changed and he became even quieter. Shortly after, he said that he needed to make a phone call. He wasn’t too long and remained as quiet as before when he returned. Both Justin and she made their apologies quite early and left together. Once in the street, as he opened his mouth to say goodbye, Mary said:
“Listen, I didn’t know anything about it. I asked Maureen in the kitchen and she told me what happened to Sgt. Leaman. I’m terribly sorry. But Tom hadn’t told me anything. I can see why he invited me, and I must say I found it a bit weird at the time, but he’d always been helpful and kind to me, I couldn’t say no for no reason. I just wanted you to know that I didn’t come here with the intention of analysing you or anything like that. Goodnight then. And good luck.”
As she turned to leave, he asked:
“Could we…talk? In confidence?”
“If you think it might help…”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t talk much. David was one of the few people I’ve ever talked to…And his wife Lea, but less…She’s too distraught to bother her with the way I’m feeling right now.”
“Let’s go somewhere. Do you know any place?”
“There’s an all-night diner not very far away from here. There’re never too many people there.”
He was right. There were a couple of people having something to eat, but otherwise, the place was dead quiet. Mary ordered a hot chocolate and he had some ice-cream and coffee. He had a spoonful of the ice-cream and put it to one side.
“No appetite? You didn’t eat much at the McLeods either.”
“No. I don’t feel like eating.”
“Have you lost weight?”
“Probably. Clothes seem loose now.” He went quiet. Mary asked.
“Are you sleeping all right?”
“Not really…I fall asleep easily enough, and then…I wake up in the middle of the night. I keep having these horrible nightmares…I can see David being shot in the head over and over again…”
“Did you see it?…I knew you’d been there, but I didn’t realise…”
“Yes. I was there. When I close my eyes I keep seeing him…falling down…Yes, I know…post-traumatic stress and all that crap. I don’t care what you call it; I’m not going to let it beat me. Not after what I’ve been through. I was beaten up by my father, tortured by him, really…He sent my mother and me to hospital time and again until one day…he hit her; she knocked her head against a banister and died. I pushed him downstairs, he was drunk…He didn’t die but ended up in a coma, like a vegetable. He finally died a couple of years ago and I couldn’t have cared less. It was a relief. I was 14 when all that happened. And then…They put me in a children’s home, and I did drugs, and drank, and…other things…And David caught me at a robbery…I was 16 at the time, and…I don’t know what it was, but he felt sorry for me. Lea says I probably reminded him of the son he lost as a child. Anyway, he took an interest, took me home with him and…He can’t be dead!” Justin burst out crying and Mary kept quiet, offering him a tissue after a few minutes.
“I hadn’t cried…for a long time. It makes me feel stupid and…”
“Vulnerable?… We’re all human and we hurt. It’s allowed, you know?”
“No. Not me. If I let everything come out…It’s a can of worms, Mary…Can I call you Mary?”
“Sure you can.”
“It’s…The only way I can get on with my life is by forgetting what went on before. Dave used to tell me that I didn’t have control over what the bastard of my father did to me and that he’d been punished for it, and I might as well concentrate on the rest of my life, because over that…I had some control and I could decide what to do. I could change it over; I could become anything I wanted if I just tried hard enough.”
Here, a reminder of the whole book and links:
‘Escaping Psychiatry’ is a collection of three stories in the psychological thriller genre with the same protagonist, Mary, a psychiatrist, and writer. She is trying to develop her literary career but circumstances and friends conspire to keep dragging her back to psychiatry.
In ‘Cannon Fodder’ Mary has to assess Cain, an African-American man accused of inciting a religious riot when he claimed that he could hear God and God was black. He might not be mad, but Mary is sure he’s hiding something.
‘Teamwork’ sees Mary hoodwinked into offering therapy to Justin, a policeman feeling guilty after his partner and ersatz father was killed on-duty. Before Mary can extricate herself from the case, things get personal.
In ‘Memory’ Mary goes missing after an incident with Phil, who is manic as he hasn’t been taking his medication. When she is found, she has been the victim of a horrific crime, but they soon discover she was luckier than they had realised.
The epilogue revisits Mary at the point of the trial of her abductor and sees what changes have taken place in her life. Will she finally manage to Escape Psychiatry?
Thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher for the book, thanks to all of you for writing, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and to keep smiling!