22 April 2013

Review: The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber


'This poetry you have before your eyes: the greatest code that man has yet devised.'


"On May 30th, 1593, a celebrated young playwright was killed in a tavern brawl in London. Or so the official version goes. Now Christopher Marlowe tells us the truth: that his 'death' was an elaborate ruse to avoid his prosecution for heresy; that he lived on in lonely exile, pining for his true love from across the Channel; and that he continued to write plays and poetry, hiding behind the name of a colourless merchant from Stratford - one William Shakespeare."

I hadn't heard of this book before the Women's Prize longlist was announced but it was one that instantly appealed. I had the enjoyable experience of reading it without knowing much about it and whilst I had to really invest time and concentration on it, and it took me a while to read, I was thoroughly impressed and entranced by it. It is both witty and melancholy, gritty yet lovely. It's wonderful to read something so unique.

First Line: "What can a dead man say that you will hear?"

Why I read it: It was on the Women's Prize longlist, and I am so disappointed it didn't make the shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of fiction that requires some concentration and investment, but that is worth the effort. If you enjoy Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro. (Also fans of beautiful hardbacks.)

I knew next to nothing about this when I downloaded it, when the Women's Prize longlist was announced I went through it and downloaded any I didn't already own that appealed. I chose this based on it's beautiful cover, it being written in verse and it's setting in Elizabethan England. I studied sixteenth century history at university, specifically religious and printing history so I was pretty set up to enjoy this but if you don't know much about the period or people involved you will still enjoy it and Barber provides a pretty thorough historical summary at the end. I also had managed to avoid realising the what if scenario and so thoroughly enjoyed realising that was what happening near the beginning.

This book is an absolute joy to read and one best enjoyed read, or at least muttered, aloud. I thoroughly annoyed my husband by reading it out loud and constantly wanting to read bits to him as well as muttering away to myself in an airport. But it's true beauty is really discovered when you do hear it out loud - every poem is put together so wonderfully and carefully and I was actually laughing out loud at points by how glorious it was. This was one of my favourite quotes;

        "To go back to the ground-nest of your birth
when you have fledged, have learnt to use your wings,
flown across oceans, sung with friends at dawn,
is to shrink and rot as surely as a worm
will hole an apple."
I bookmarked many, many passages in this book, some that were sad, some uplifting and always beautiful. There was a passage in particular that really resonated with me as I'm at the end of five months away from home in Asia, as Marlowe describes his homesickness for England. There is also plenty of humour - lines or phrases that made me laugh. Although, the tone of the book is largely quite melancholy as Marlowe constantly fights for his identity and to be able to see the man he is in love with. At times the misery and the grim depictions of London's grimy streets and the machinations and betrayals people are capable of were quite oppressive. I don't want to give too much away about how Barber ends it, but the last poem was probably my absolute favourite and the last few verses gave me goosebumps.

I don't really know a great deal about how widely people believe that Marlowe authored Shakespeare's works, or indeed that Marlowe didn't die in a bar brawl, I had always thought it was a tiny minority who loved conspiracy theories but this has made me want to have another look at it all, I love a good historical literary mystery. Barber's book is based on the facts that we have available to us and is certainly very convincing, although ultimately that is not what it's about. Barber, I don't believe, is trying to convince us that Marlowe didn't die or that he wrote Shakespeare's works, but to write a novel that is a celebration of the power of words and story and in that she absolutely succeeds.

1 comment:

  1. I had a great, passionate English professor who has devoted his life to Shakespearean literature. In the academia, Marlowe and Shakespeare are without a dobut two people and the lack of information about Marlowe's life in certain periods are suspected to be due to her condition as an spy. For example he got a degree when he barely attended lessons. It is also very established he died in a brawl with some political background motivating it. Sadly, it's impossible to know if it's 100% true.

    I hadn't heard of this book either but somehow it does not appeal to me. I think it all has to do with the era.

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