Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book Review: Interred with Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Interred with Their Bones is a Shakespearean twist on The Da Vinci Code, and if you approach the book with that firmly in mind, you'll probably find some enjoyment in it. It is, however, one of those books where you can only apply but so much logic to it before the entire structure collapses under the weight of sensibility.

The book's plot structure follows a little too neatly in the Da Vinci path, involving many of the same character tropes and narrative devices. We open, after a brief and vague historical flashback, with Kate Stanley, director of the Globe's Hamlet, meeting for the first time in years with her estranged and eccentric mentor, Roz Howard. (If you're enough of an early modern history geek to be quirking an eyebrow at those names, rest assured: yes, everyone in the book labors under similarly referential nomenclature). Roz has some terrible secret to impart and a quest to set Kate on, but before she can reveal the details of either, she is found dead in the aftermath of a fire (not, as the book jacket would have you believe, at the Globe itself, but in an auxiliary building). Kate feels obligated to pick up Roz's trail of bread crumbs. As she follows them, more dead bodies start piling up around her, and she ends up fleeing with the police on her trail, a device which feels even more strange in this book than it does in The Da Vinci Code. Kate has no real reason to distrust the police, no reason not to clear herself from culpability before embarking on her quest, and so her actions just seem bizarre and inexplicable. It gives the drama of the plotline a false echo, and it's one of the threads that a reader has to avoid plucking at in order to avoid a total collapse of the narrative. Still, with thrillers, you do sometimes have to make plausibility allowances, so this element may not prove troublesome to all readers.

Part of what hindered my enjoyment of this book, which I could otherwise have consumed as mere Da Vinci Code-esque fluff, is that it disturbs me, as a scholar, how much this book not only entertains anti-Stratfordian opinions, but implies that very serious people in the Shakespearean world would not only hold those opinions, but hold them strongly enough to commit all sorts of heinous crimes to prove them true. I started to recoil as soon as Carrell broached the topic, and eventually, that aversion colored my reading of the text pretty strongly. I now know how art historians and theologians alike must feel about Dan Brown. (One of last summer's interns, Natalie, wrote about this aspect of the book on the Intern Blog). Despite the pitfalls of exploring of the "controversy," the book is actually at its best when traipsing through historical possibilities -- the inventions linking Cardenio to Catholic plots via Cervantes and Jesuits are reasonably entertaining and provide some profitable fodder for exploration. I could cheerfully entertain all of that, if not for the liberal allowance suggesting that any of it might be true. The jet-setting aspect of the book, volleying from London to Harvard to the Southwest to Spain (and ricocheting back and forth between some of those a few times) is a fun diversion, and Carrell does an admirable job of painting her landscapes.

One of the critical failings in this book, unfortunately, lies in its protagonist and narrator. Carrell presents Kate as though she is a big up-and-comer in the Shakespearean field, a director that a Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellan type would refer to as "that brilliant American child." Kate, of course, demurs from this description, but nonetheless, the whole thing smacks of Informed Ability. Kate is an superlative scholar and director because Carrell tells us that she is, rather than showing us. This trait in of itself wouldn't be so bad, except that, for such a prodigy, Kate has some pretty credulity-stretching gaps in her knowledge -- and one of them is the fundamental underpinning of the mystery, the fact that Shakespeare wrote a lost play entitled Cardenio, something that Kate is apparently unaware of until well into the book. The first-person narrative also hampers the book, partially because Kate's head is not quite a well-developed enough place to spend four hundred pages in, partially because it accentuates that gulf between her reputation and what she actually knows. First-person narration creates a trap for a writer: if the audience needs to know something, either the narrator knows it and tells it, which can come off as preachy, or the narrator doesn't know and has to find out in order for the audience to find out, even if it's something the narrator should already know -- or shouldn't need quite as much hand-holding to figure out. Interred with Their Bones manages to fall into both pits multiple times at different points in the story.


Interred with Their Bones was adequate summer-read entertainment. If you're in a place where your mind can let go and indulge freely in a suspense romp, as mine was when I read it at the beach, then by all means, pick this up. The pace clips along well enough to keep a reader engaged, and if the plot turns are occasionally predictable, sometimes that's what you're looking for out of light summer reading. If you're looking for heavier fare or exceptionally solid writing, though, you may want to look elsewhere, as this book doesn't hold up well under much scrutiny.

1 comment:

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