I’ve been dreading writing this review since I realised (by about a quarter of the way through reading it) just what an awful book Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth is. But I reluctantly have to warn other Jo Nesbo fans not to waste their time or money on this retelling of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. It seems like our much beloved Norwegian crime writer has had a succession of really bad days of writing to the point where the result is almost unrecognisable as a Nesbo original. It’s far far removed from his previous paperback book, the very satisfying Harry Hole story, The Thirst.
So what the hell possessed Nesbo to adapt Macbeth for a modern crime reader? Money or ego, or a mix of both? Hogarth Press embarked upon the Hogarth Shakespeare project to present the Bard’s best works in a modern way from the pen of today’s most acclaimed or best-selling authors including Margaret Atwood, Gillian Flynn and Howard Jacobson. But if Nesbo’s book is anything to go on, I think I’ll pass on the others, and I wouldn’t expect the likes of Stephen King (who would probably do a very good job) to appear in the series any time soon.
Macbeth is ingrained in my psyche since studying for my O-Level English exam and I can still recite most of Macbeth’s soliloquy from memory. Get me. Nesbo makes a clumsy attempt at rewriting this monologue and retelling various other iconic moments from the play; all of which are spoiled in the process. For instance, the prophetic walking wood is converted rather clumsily into a rolling steam train named Bertha and daggers are converted to throwing knives – a skill Macbeth learnt at the circus we are told. Really it’s laughable, and on reflection quite fitting that a train wreck should feature in the finale because the whole book is one big train wreck.
Most of the main characters more or less keep their names, but I would’ve been more accepting if McDuff rather than being ‘Duff’ was ‘Duffy’ and Banquo renamed ‘Banks’ maybe. It just kept reminding me that I was reading the equivalent of a bad ‘cover version’ – you know the ones – where they change the music or the way it’s sung but keep the lyrics. Lady Macbeth is just known as Lady and both her and her lover toy with a drug called ‘power’ after progressing from taking ‘brew’ which is formulated in a drug lab by the ‘sisters’. No honestly.
There is none of the gothic feel of the play despite Nesbo’s Norge-noir credentials and despite his rather half-assed attempt to shoehorn in an incongruous werewolf/vampire type character, Seyton from SWAT, in the latter stages of the book. That’s a very odd bit.
The run-down Scottish city in which Nesbo places his characters has more character than any of the people in the story. There are very few characters you can invest any emotion into caring about and so when they are systematically killed you couldn’t care less.
To my mind Macbeth is supposed to be an anti-hero but in Nesbo’s tale he just comes across as a total dick. There’s even a bit in the book where he questions why anyone would want to go to the theatre to watch plays about ‘megalomaniacal kings who die in the third act’, which smacks of the author either having a chronic brain-fart or trying to be ‘meta’ and failing epically.
If you want a run down of the actual plot then the wikipedia page is a good place to go and I recommend that you take a look and then find another book to spend your money on. Nesbo has sold 40 million books worldwide now, but I wonder just how many copies of Macbeth publishers Vintage have sold in comparison to his other translations.
I’d go so far as to say that even if you haven’t read Macbeth you will find this story very much inferior to anything else Jo Nesbo has written. However, I read a review on Amazon just now that said something like ‘I’ve never read the Shakespeare version but I really enjoyed this book…’ So who am I to judge? lol. It’ll probably get made into a hugely popular Netflix Original series.
That’s enough. It has honestly pained me to write this… almost as much as that review of The Force Awakens.
“Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, ‘Hold, hold!'”