R.A. Spratt | Hamlet Is Not OK (Penguin AU YR)

240 pgs. | $15.99 paperback

Shakespeare often seduces others to expand his literary realm. Writers so beguiled sometimes obscure this source. The 1956 SF film Forbidden Planet, which typically demands a post-viewing explication to grasp how it maps onto the track of The Tempest, stands as specimen of this tactic. On other occasions, modern scribblers make their collaboration clear by inserting recognized characters from Shakespeare’s plays, or even the bard himself, into the text. 1998’s Shakespeare in Love represents this alternate ruse.

Hamlet Is Not OK by Australia’s R.A. Spratt follows the clear collaboration model. While Shakespeare fails to appear, the narrative design permits its YA protagonists to engage with the residents of Elsinore Castle both in situ and against contemporary contexts. Aside from supplying a vantage from which its intended high school audience can better appreciate the original play, these temporal collisions help spark debate on the proper response of modern readers to the attitudes and behaviors condoned inside the imagined Danish court.

Shakespeare’s response to mental crises receives the sternest reappraisal since our modern reaction has shifted from one of anxious watching to an insistence on intervention, which is the course our YA heroes pursue. One form these interventions take is to simply share Ophelia’s grief, promising Hamlet’s girlfriend better times can follow if she survives her sadness, an act that prevents her drowning. For the Prince of Denmark, an utterly probable pharmaceutical cause for his bouts of insanity is offered with the prospect of the restoration of his reason once his body flushes out the suspect chemical. However, in both cases the emotionally toxic environment of Elsinore undoes these efforts, motivating our young protagonists to hustle Ophelia and Hamlet to locales more conducive to their recovery through the magic portal that granted access to the Bard of Avon’s literary landscape.

This ploy works well for Ophelia. As our high-school-aged characters observe, Ophelia has zero impact on the plot post-suicide. In the final scene where Hamlet and Laertes rampage with rapiers no one speaks her name, making it possible for this lethal denouement to detonate without her influence.

Hamlet’s extraction proves more problematic. Not only do the bulk of the scenes in their edition of the play go blank with his early exit, the same erasure decimates vast swathes of recorded knowledge due to the already noted inclination of others to draw inspiration from Shakespeare. Ironically for example, given the novel’s focus on mental health, much of what psychoanalysis has to say about dysfunctional father-son relationships vanishes since many of Freud’s insights in this respect derive from delving into the difficulties the prince had with his dad. This threat to established texts puts our heroes into a Marty McFly situation where they must travel back to the past to save the future, but with sufficient savvy to radically reduce the Bard’s excessive body count.

Hamlet Is Not OK possessed the comic chops to make this reviewer laugh out loud, whether it was when a character complained the poison-poured-in-an-ear gambit Claudius employed wasn’t plausible enough to support a CSI episode, or when Hamlet asks a fan of graphic novels “is thy school so lackluster that they failed to teach you letters?” On the other hand, this isn’t a novel one can wholeheartedly recommend to grownups. Spratt seems to deliberately construct her YA characters so they exhibit as few distinguishing traits as possible. While this technique allows a large cohort of her Gen-Z audience to pour themselves into these POVs and use them as personal avatars, it also tends to inhibit the exploration of the human condition most adult readers expect. But grownups who curate collections for middle and high school readers—whether for library or classroom checkout—should put Hamlet Is Not OK on their buy lists. This novel’s snarky sass will definitely appeal to intellectually curious teens. And, in an epoch where casual genocide is routinely winked at, a tale that strives so earnestly to save the lives of even fictional persons is a beacon in the gathering darkness. | Chuck Von Nordheim

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