A debut novel that offers a modern, young-adult retelling of Hamlet with a female stand-in for Shakespeare’s title character.
Horst von Wittenberg may be the only trustworthy friend and confidant Dana Hamlet has left as the story kicks off, but she still means more to him than he does to her. Unrequited love burns in Horst, especially as Dana drifts away from him after her mother’s untimely death and her father’s unseemly remarriage. The distance closes when they encounter her mother’s ghost, but this meeting throws Dana into madness and revenge, with consequences as dire as those in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Although the novel has a female Hamlet and other gender-swapping, the story and characters mirror the source material almost exactly, occasionally to the point of being too obvious: “The place always made me think of a medieval castle.” There are a few intriguing differences, but the strength of this sort of adaptation lies in showing how powerful and relevant the original story remains, a challenge the novel tackles wonderfully. The modernization works nearly seamlessly, transposing the politics of medieval Denmark to a Southern California corporate and Catholic school culture. What’s more, the embellishments to the characters make them truly come alive. Horst’s wheelchair makes him as much of an outsider as Horatio ever was, and Phil, Dana’s boyfriend, is a surfer, his connection to the water acting as a grim reminder of Ophelia’s story in Shakespeare’s verse. Horatio in the play is a largely silent observer, constantly present but seldom acting, and while Horst does much the same, his rich inner monologue and love for Dana are among the most engaging aspects of the book. Conversely, many of the sections without Horst are low points, becoming disjointed and awkward without his grounding voice. The novel also occasionally overreaches in using the original text. Most of the references are clever, but some borrow too heavily from Hamlet’s soliloquies and lose their sense of potency: “Words, words, words. She said them—out loud, even—but they did not reach loving ears.” But these failings are few, and while the writing may not be Shakespearean, it’s more dynamic than that of most contemporary young-adult literature while still being thoroughly entertaining and emotional.
An imperfect YA adaptation of a classic but a striking one nonetheless.