Review : Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger

It’s always an amazing experience reading a Hamlet adaptation.  How much of the original story will be kept?  What will be cut, and what new material will be added?  How will the author make the transition from Shakespeare’s world to the new setting? Will the final result be little more than a “modern language” novelization of Shakespeare, or a legitimate literary work?

All of these questions floated through my mind when Bardfilm recommended Undiscovered Country to me. Jesse Matson is hunting in the woods of Minnesota when his dad, Harold, dies from a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.  That is, of course, until Harold’s ghost appears to Jesse and claims that Jesse’s uncle Clay is actually the one that pulled the trigger. Uncle Clay, of course, quickly makes the moves on Jesse’s mom Genevieve and we get the whole backstory about jealousy between the brothers, Harold’s position of power over other men in the neighborhood (he’s some sort of local politician?  I lost that thread in listening to the audiobook).

There’s a girlfriend character, but is she Ophelia?  Her dad is certainly not your normal Polonius if this is the case.  What about Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?  There are a variety of supporting players but I couldn’t draw you a map.

Once upon a time (bear with me for a moment) Stephen King wrote two books pretty much simultaneously – The Regulators and Desperation. These two books are in a parallel universe to each other, where all of the characters appear in both stories, just in completely different context.  Steve is a sheriff in one who dies in the first few chapters, but in the other book Steve is a married insurance salesman with kids who ends up the hero (I made up all of that, as a non-spoiler example).

Reading Shakespeare adaptations like Undiscovered Country always makes me think of that King experiment.  Jesse’s girlfriend Christine shows up and I spend the rest of the story thinking, “Ok, is she going to betray him? Go crazy and kill herself?  What about her father, where is the Polonius character?”  The great thing is that all or none of that might be true, and I have no idea.  None of it *has* to be true.  I haven’t actually finished the book yet, so I have no idea which parts are and are not.

One interesting angle leaps right out at you from the first chapter — this story is written in the voice of Jesse from ten years down the road, writing about what happened to him when he was younger.  So, right off the bat, you know that whatever’s about to happen, our Hamlet survives.  How does this change the story?  DOES this change the story?  I haven’t finished it yet, so I have no idea whether the rest is silence for our narrator or not.

Completely outside all of our Shakespeare baggage, this book works as the story of a young man coming to terms with the death of his father.  By telling it from his perspective we see that *he* thinks he’s the one in complete control while everyone else either falls to pieces around him (his mom), is just an innocent who doesn’t understand (his girlfriend), or is in on it (uncle Clay).  There are several great scenes where the author manages to knock Jesse entirely off his game and make him question just how much control over his situation he really has, and I love those scenes.  At one point he bursts in on the sheriff with some “evidence” of Clay’s guilt.  The sheriff calmly hears him out, then asks patiently, “Do you feel better just getting that out, or do you need me to be the sheriff now?”  When Jesse informs him that of course he needs to be the sheriff now, he learns very quickly that he’s not the one making the rules here, and that everything is not going to go his way.   The famous “Hamlet and Gertrude bedroom scene” also plays out similarly, where Jesse barges in with complete confidence about what he’s going to say and what’s going to happen next, and gets another that he is a child dealing with adults.

I’ve not finished the story, as I mentioned.  So far I love it. I love that I have no idea how closely we’ll follow the Hamlet story – whether Ophelia will go insane, whether her father will play a role, whether our Hamlet is still going to end up dead even though he’s narrating the story.  I can’t wait to find out.

This year’s Shakespeare Day Celebration is sponsored in part by Shakespeare Is Universal: Shakespeare truly is for everyone, and nothing demonstrates that sentiment better than his most famous quote of all, translated here into languages from around the world.   In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, show that you believe his works are just as relevant, powerful and important as they’ve ever been!

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