In Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest, Prospero launches a virulent verbal attack on his servant Caliban: he is ‘filth’, a ‘poisonous slave’, ‘hag-seed’. He has greeted all Prospero’s efforts to civilise him with brutish indifference and, worst of all, he has repaid the magician’s kindnesses by trying to debauch Prospero’s young daughter Miranda. The play, like the island, is dominated by Prospero’s will and superficially we see nothing to counteract this stinging denunciation. But, if we look more closely, there are hints that all may not be so simple. Jacqueline’s Carey elegant novel draws out some of these allusions and offers a subtle retelling of the story, in which a childhood friendship between two motherless children develops into a heartbreaking study of the loss of innocence.
Miranda is six when her father captures the wild boy. Confined to a cell, this feral child rages at his lack of freedom and shows no more self-awareness than a beast. Miranda’s Papa thinks the boy has lost his wits and is ready to charm him into dull submission, but little Miranda is determined not to lose a potential friend. After all, he’s the only one she might ever have. And so she devotes herself to the wild boy, persuading him to tell her his name – Caliban – and teaching him to speak, to count, to do small tasks around the palace, and to feel affection. While Miranda’s Papa locks himself away in his tower, delving into the chymical secrets of the universe, the children set out to explore the island. But this happy idyll can’t last, and it’s magic that brings an end to it.
The changes come when Miranda’s Papa decides to free the spirit trapped in the cloven pine before the palace. Ariel may be as light and airy as a whisk of wind, but he also brings trouble: he spies and makes mischief and his barbed comments awaken the children to new, forbidden thoughts. Miranda is no longer content to submit to her father’s casual tyranny: she begins to burn to understand his great project and to know what lies behind the door of his laboratorium. And Caliban, some years older and sunk in the thousandfold miseries of adolescence, begins to panic when his fondness for his pretty playmate shifts into something less easily explained. Stumbling blindly into adulthood, Miranda and Caliban know only that their destinies are out of their hands: any future they might have will be determined by the mystical experiments that Miranda’s Papa carries out behind the forbidden door of his laboratium.
This is perhaps the most satisfying thing about the book: the way that, by telling the story from a slightly different angle, Carey reverses the traditional labels of hero and villain. Prospero is a vengeful, power-hungry magician who rules his small domain with tyrannical precision. His daughter and his servant boy are controlled not by kindness but by the threat of magical punishment (and Carey deals well with the magic, which feels less like the sorcery of high fantasy and more like a very successful form of alchemy). He brooks no opposition to his plans, even if to bring them about he must resort to controlling the blossoming of the human heart. And yet, lest that sound too black-and-white, there is an element of humanity here: this Prospero, too, is a man broken and lost, exiled from his home and left to rely on his own resources in a kingdom whose subjects – for the most part – are sylphs and sprites, a mocking reminder of the people he formerly ruled in Milan.
I’ve heard of Carey before, as Heloise speaks warmly of her Kushiel’s Legacy series, but this is the first of her books I’ve read. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to tackle Shakespeare on his home turf, but Carey adopts a beautiful, gently archaic prose style which suits the subject very well and blends effortlessly into the events of The Tempest proper. Shrewd and sensitive, it fleshes out the members of Prospero’s unusual household and gives a voice to characters who, in the play itself, are little better than pawns in their master’s game of political expedience. Definitely recommended to those who like to delve into their Shakespeare a little more deeply.
This reminds me: I must read Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed as well, because I’d love to see the angle that she takes on the story…
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review