MACBETH by Jo Nesbø
CBTB Rating: 5/5
The Verdict: a gritty remake worthy of its namesake
Read CBTB’s Buzzworthy 2018 Books Post
Can you imagine a greater challenge for a writer than remaking one of Shakespeare’s most infamous plays for a modern audience? It’s hard to wrap your head around, and what’s even harder to believe is when an author manages to nail that ambitious project. I first learned that my favorite author Jo Nesbø would be remaking my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays in January 2014 (!) and I’ve been waiting for its release ever since—safe to say, my expectations were high. Imagine my relief and awe, then, when I finally had the chance to read Nesbø’s MACBETH this past fall, and found that it didn’t just meet my expectations—it blew them out of the water. Raw, gritty, and rough around the edges, Nesbø’s MACBETH captures the ageless dark heart of Shakespeare’s original work, and packages it in the razor-sharp crime writing only Nesbø can deliver. Revenge, love, guilt—themes that permeate Nesbø’s own works are perfectly reflected in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and come together in Nesbø’s remake to pitch-perfect effect. Macbeth and Nesbø’s own work live in the same space: that dark corner of the human soul that grapples with limitless ambition and ruthless self-interest, and, with those commonalities at its core, Nesbø’s adaptation of the infamous play feels as natural a combination as any reader could imagine. It takes a masterful writer to deliver what Nesbø does here: a remake as fiercely original and as it is faithful to its inspiration.
Set in the 1970s in a run-down, rainy industrial town, Jo Nesbø's Macbeth centers around a police force struggling to shed an incessant drug problem. Duncan, chief of police, is idealistic and visionary, a dream to the townspeople but a nightmare for criminals. The drug trade is ruled by two drug lords, one of whom—a master of manipulation named Hecate—has connections with the highest in power, and plans to use them to get his way.
Hecate’s plot hinges on steadily, insidiously manipulating Inspector Macbeth: the head of SWAT and a man already susceptible to violent and paranoid tendencies. What follows is an unputdownable story of love and guilt, political ambition, and greed for more, exploring the darkest corners of human nature, and the aspirations of the criminal mind.
It’s something I’ve never had a chance to discuss on Crime by the Book until I first read Nesbø’s MACBETH, but I’ve been an avid reader of Shakespeare’s works for years. (I even played Hamlet in a school production… but that’s a story for another time!) Of the Shakespeare I’ve read, Macbeth has long held a special place in my heart. Not only is it what I consider one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works, and a great point of entry for readers unsure where to start exploring Shakespeare, but its themes are the same themes that continue to attract me to crime fiction book after book, year after year. Lust for power and relentless pursuit of it; interpersonal manipulations and their resulting fallout; love and love gone tragically wrong—these are the topics that resonate with me most of all in crime fiction because of just how deeply human they are. They’re themes reflected in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and they’re reflected in Nesbø’s canon, too, and to bring them together now in Nesbø’s MACBETH feels like a match made in crime fiction heaven.
There are a few Nesbø trademarks that I know I can count on in every book of his I read, whether an installment in the Harry Hole series or a standalone. I expect him to deliver a grim, gritty atmosphere; I expect him to write raw and complex characters; I expect him to wrap this all up in a sharp and masterful crime plot. It’s the Nesbø trifecta, and it’s what makes his books just so good—and it’s what makes MACBETH outstanding, too.
MACBETH takes place against the backdrop of a run-down industrial town, a location as bleak as the fortunes of its residents. We know the original Macbeth takes place in Scotland, but in Nesbø's remake, the town is introduced to readers without any real geographic markers. This town could be anywhere: what matters to the story isn’t where the town is, but what political maneuvers and social tensions play out within it. The anonymity of the town central to this story is a brilliant move on the author’s part: not only can we now imagine this town as a location relevant to our own lives, but it does so much to bring the story into the twentieth century in a natural, seamless way. We’re not told to imagine 1970’s Scotland—we’re given a period of time, yes, but we're also given the freedom to build up our own idea of where exactly this town is. Laying this foundation in a way that has a bit of give to it makes the process of modernizing a classic infinitely more smooth and authentic. I’m sure no two readers of MACBETH will envision this town exactly the same way, but we will all come away from it with the same richly-developed sense of just what kind of place this is—and, more importantly, with what kind of people inhabit it. The town’s anonymity allows us, the readers, to place ourselves even more squarely inside the story, and imagine just how our own lives are mirrored in the lives of this town’s characters. It’s not always a pretty picture; in fact, I’d bet that’s exactly the point. It seems contradictory, but there’s such beauty in the picture Nesbø paints of this barren town; Nesbø is a technically beautiful writer, and his translator Don Bartlett is equally masterful—readers will soak up the vivid language used to describe the town’s filth and disrepair. There’s genuine beauty in the portrait Nesbø paints of this downtrodden city, and, as contradictory as it may seem, readers will luxuriate in the gloom and melancholy of it all.
Revenge, love, guilt—themes that permeate Nesbø’s own works are perfectly reflected in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and come together in Nesbø’s remake to pitch-perfect effect.
Fans of Nesbø’s work will no doubt be most curious to see just how Nesbø’s Macbeth compares to Harry Hole, the protagonist of Nesbø’s infamous series. Let’s be clear: Macbeth is no competition for our beloved Harry, but he certainly makes a strong contender. It’s not so much who Macbeth is as what Nesbø does with this character that stands out here. We all know the story of Macbeth: an ambitious man who, after receiving a prophecy from three witches, finds himself spurred by lust for power (and by the urging of his wife) to take as much of it as he can get. That’s not exactly a sympathetic character, but that’s what makes this play such a perfect match for Nesbø’s writing. Think about Harry: a police officer who skirts the law, pursues his own agenda, and tends to hurt those around him even (or especially) when it’s not his intention. We, as the readers, are put to the test as much as is Harry. How far is Harry willing to go? And how far are we willing to follow him? When does he go from troubled-yet-endearing to just plain bad?
Nesbø has that astute ability to push his characters and his readers to the limits of what is "good" and "acceptable"—and he does the same thing here. We feel for Macbeth: we see him as a good man led astray. We follow him as he is led down the wrong path, watching as he goes from a hesitant participant in wrongdoing to a driving force behind it. And yet we never fully write him off—we go with him to those corners of the human heart that hold our darkest, most base instincts. More than the story’s action scenes, watching Macbeth’s transformation and inner turmoil is where this story truly thrills. Shootouts and political machinations are one level of entertainment, but the unraveling of our main character and the tumult that plagues his increasingly unhinged mind is where the real meat of the book can be found—and where the author’s keen sense for human nature is most on display. What does guilt do to a person? What happens when you’ve cast aside all moral obligation in favor of self interest? When your addiction to power supersedes your conscience, what is left of you? Whether you’re thinking about these questions in the context of a story you’re hearing about on the news or a novel you’ve borrowed from the library, there’s something fundamental at the core of the issues raised by the story of Macbeth. It’s a story that peels back the layers of humanity, examining each step a person can take on the path to corruption, and exploring the fallout of each decision that person makes in turn. In the hands of a writer like Nesbø, it’s a story with very sharp teeth indeed.
There’s nothing “light” about Nesbø’s MACBETH, not its physical size nor in the complexity of its plot, but it's precisely the author’s ability to juggle the story’s many moving parts and mold it into something cohesive that is yet another strength of an already outstanding read. Each character in this novel hums with life: from Lady to Hecate to Duncan and more, Nesbø has molded a cast of brilliant adaptations of Shakespeare’s originals, each with the intentionality and complexity we expect from the characters of a Nesbø novel. Between these characters and within this town, there are power games and turf wars and standoffs between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”—and there’s a subtle blurring of the lines between those groups, too. Layer on top of the story’s complex political machinations and interplay between “good” and “evil” the town itself: a dismal, dreary place that comes alive for the reader, bringing its own intensity and personality to every page. It’s a wonder that Nesbø manages to streamline all of this into a cogent crime novel, but he does—and the end product is far more than simply “cogent.” It’s insightful and raw and, above all, honest about the terrible capacity people have to do harm in the name of achievement. But even beyond the ability of this book to explore the inner workings of the human mind and the political and social tensions of a town overrun by corruption, MACBETH is simply superb crime fiction. Its plotting is masterful and cohesive—whether or not you’re a fan of Shakespeare’s original play, you will find much to love about this remake. Shootouts, stakeouts, standoffs, policework, and violent criminals, this book has it all, every word of it infused with that trademark Nesbø intelligence. This isn’t just a great remake, it’s a great crime novel, the themes of Macbeth’s story ringing true with the themes that make for excellent crime fiction.
What do we take away from a book like this? A book this bleak, this grim - what does the author hope we’ll walk away from it thinking? I like to think Nesbø wrote this story’s final chapter with a smile: I won’t spoil anything for you (of course), but I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when I closed this book. After the tears (literal tears - I cried reading this book) of chapters prior and the raw emotion of the tragedies and glimmers of hope found within these pages, the story’s conclusion was, ironically enough, just what the doctor ordered: a rough and blunt reminder that, though we may be getting better bit by bit, humanity is just bad enough to keep giving crime writers more fodder for generations to come.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
In case you missed it - read my “Buzzworthy 2018 Books” post on MACBETH here!
Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Hogarth (April 10, 2018)
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