Queen Macbeth by Val McDermid; Henry Henry by Allen Bratton - review by Rhodri Lewis

Rhodri Lewis

Double Trouble

Queen Macbeth


Polygon 152pp £12

Henry Henry


Jonathan Cape 336pp £16.99

Shakespearean and para-Shakespearean fiction has been with us for a long time. Stand-out examples include Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and although a series (The Hogarth Shakespeare, with seven titles published between 2015 and 2018) dedicated to novelistic reworkings of Shakespeare’s plays might seem like overkill, its contributors included Margaret Atwood, Jo Nesbø and Edward St Aubyn.

Val McDermid’s Queen Macbeth is also part of a series, Polygon’s Darkland Tales, in which ‘the best modern Scottish authors’ revisit ‘landmark moments’ from Scotland’s past. Her chosen subject is Macbethad mac Findláech (better known as Macbeth), king of Scotland from 1040 to 1057, and his queen, Gruoch. The earliest surviving accounts of their reign suggest that he was highly regarded, later ones that he became a bloodthirsty tyrant and was justly overthrown. It is the later ones that eventually found their way south of the border and provided the historian Holinshed with the material for his Chronicles, on which Shakespeare drew while writing his 1606 tragedy. That McDermid has chosen to treat the series as an opportunity for ‘setting Shakespeare straight’ might strike you as peculiar, but doing so has the advantage of keeping things simple: she can present her novel as liberating a pair of Scottish worthies from the smears of the English, while simultaneously profiting from these smears’ fame.

Queen Macbeth is narrated by Gruoch, who alternates between the past and present tenses. The sections in the present describe her exile on an island monastery in Loch Leven after her husband’s overthrow, her companions (most notably ‘my three women’), their flight after the defeat of her son from her

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