Friday, 7 June 2013

The Marlowe Papers, by Ros Barber

  Set in Tudor England, The Marlowe Papers asks the question: What if the notorious Christopher Marlowe wasn't killed by a stabwound to the eye in a tavern brawl? What if his 'death' was staged like one of his plays and Marlowe was smuggled overseas to live in exile? What if he continued to write for the theatre, publishing his plays under the Pseudonym William Shakespeare?
I'm so confused. I was always fairly confident that I hated historical fiction, but then I read this and now I don't know who I am anymore!

Not only is it thriller-paced, with treachery and betrayal, slander and gossip, brawling and boozing and espionage, it's also IN VERSE. It's two books really- an intricately plotted novel and a feat of poetry. There appears to be absolutely no narrative reason for the book to be in verse, it would stand up admirably without it, but the fact that Barber has braved the Iambic to bring blank verse to the 21st Century is mind-blowing. After reading it, I'm thoroughly convinced that Marlowe would have written, thought and spoken in blank verse, and anything else would seem wrong. I read it fluently, as if it were prose, but there were rhymes and rhythms that just would not be ignored. This book is a language lover's dream come true- you can feel the craft and the labour that's gone into every line, and it is much appreciated. I honestly expected to find the structure hard going, but it proved to be smooth and fluid- dialogue was natural and easy to understand and Elizabethan England came alive not through description, but through the peripheral bustle of London and the atmosphere of the black cloud hanging over it, the political upheaval that Marlowe works through.

The narrator Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe looks back on his life from middle age and wonders how a man with such promise has in death become such an infamous symbol of atheism and malevolent wickedness. He recounts tales of his arrogant youth, believing that he could write with absolute freedom and dodge the consequences, his Cambridge scholarship, prison spells, lazy loose-tongued evenings spent 'blaspheming' in taverns that may come to haunt him later, his exile, espionage and odd jobs that he performs over the years. Throughout the whole novel, the themes of identity, suppression and expression are consistently explored.  Marlowe has no true identity, constantly living under other names and in the company of enemies, but the one thing that sustains him throughout is his writing.  Though it is writing that he is bound to attribute to somebody else, it’s clear that he’d die without his words.  Marlowe’s voice in this novel is staggering- his thoughts and dreams, his actions, his reflections and speech are an absolute joy to read and are so beautifully written.  Melancholy and bitter in places, tender and passionate in others, he tells the story of his life and loves and losses in a way that’s absolutely captivating.

I love how it drew together all of the unanswered questions of the Shakespeare authorship debate-Shakespeare’s probable illiteracy, his modest background, the fact that few London records refer to him by name...the 'real' Shakespeare, a Stratford merchant, rears his little bald head now again throughout, paid by Marlowe to be the face of the operation. A dead playwright can't publish under his own name...The fiction is woven so seamlessly with the fact that I for one am absolutely convinced that this could've happened.  After all, history is always changing.  Look at Richard III…

I honestly can’t recommend this novel enough, it’s an extraordinary piece of writing.  It’s undoubtedly a challenge, but the rewards are huge, both narratively and linguistically.  For a debut novel it’s unparalleled.  It’s bound to become a modern classic.

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