A Wounded Name by Dot Hutchison

A Wounded Name A Wounded Name is a haunting, lyrical modern retelling of Hamlet, told from the perspective of Ophelia.

If that sounds boring, then this probably isn't the book for you. But if it sounds as exciting to you as it did to me, you won't be disappointed. It's wonderful.

The plot follows the story of Hamlet fairly closely, except that it's set at an old-fashioned boarding/prep school, and Hutchison has added some gorgeous paranormal twists. Ophelia is considered "mad" by her father, because she can see ghosts. She hears the laments in the graveyard and watches the magical hunt in the forest, and she lives in fear of her father finding out and sending her back to the "cold place" that is designed to cure her of her madness again.

If I were to use one word to describe this book, I'd say it was intoxicating. The prose weaves a spell that makes it impossible to put down, delicate and eerie and dark and compelling all at once.

The book sticks fairly close to the play -- too close, in some cases. The scenes that didn't work for me were always the ones that tried to follow the play too closely, with almost direct quotes from soliloquys and moments whose inclusion didn't really make sense. Polonius in the story didn't seem like the blundering, rambling figure we see in the play (at least to me), and so the inclusion of some of those lines felt out of place. Perhaps someone who's less familiar with the play would feel differently, but I found myself skimming over the scenes that were direct quotations -- partly because I already knew what they would say, but partly because they felt out of place with the tone of the rest of the book. In contrast, the best scenes were often the ones that were completely original, where the author had room to breathe and craft her own gorgeous words.

One big warning: the book contains a lot of abuse. Hamlet is as much as a damaged jerk in this as he always appeared to me in the original play. Some might see the story as a romaticization of abuse, as Ophelia is always ready to forgive Hamlet for hurting her, and she is willing to do anything that might comfort him. On the other hand, it could be seen as a plotline that shows how intoxicating and impossible to escape abuse can be. Ophelia loves Hamlet. She wants him to be whole and happy. And she wants to do whatever she can to make that happen, even if it means deluding herself into thinking that it's OK if he hurts her to help himself. I leaned more towards the second in my reading, but the fact that the narrative never explicitly condemns Hamlet means that sometimes I swayed towards the former, and some readers may find it disturbing. It's far more of a Wuthering Heights sort of "love story" than a Pride and Prejudice, except that Cathy had a lot more guts.

And that was my other big complaint. Ophelia just felt too passive. The writer is under a certain amount of constraint, given the subject material, and it was fascinating to see Ophelia struggle with her powerlessness and her slow descent into madness. But that didn't stop me from occasionally wanting Ophelia to DO something. To stand up to Hamlet, to tell her father where to shove it, to just be MORE than she was. She's a beautiful, heartbreaking character, and it's easy to become enraptured in her world... but I wished that the her spellbound passivity in the beginning had grown into something more by the end.

Still, if a Hamlet retelling appeals to you, or you just want to read an absolutely gorgeous book, this is definitely one to try. It's original, it's beautiful, and it will grip you until the end.

I also did an interview with the author, Dot Hutchison, which is posted here.