“The boys progress and advance, and the girls cling to a time that was never ours.”
In a different life, with a different story, Ophelia could have been a very different girl. She could have been happy and vibrant and wholly defined on her own terms.
This is not that life. This is not that story.
Instead Ophelia is bound tight by her mother’s death, her overbearing father and brother, the boys she holds dear. She is shuttered in by the madness–or maybe the clarity–that comes with seeing ghosts and hearing the keening of the bean sidhe as they sing for the newly dead,
The Headmaster of Elsinore Academy has died. And with him goes any hope of that different story, that different life, for Ophelia. As she struggles to help Dane mourn and grieve the death of his father, Hamley, Ophelia is drawn into his spiral of madness and rage.
There are many points where Ophelia could have chosen a different path. A different life. But this isn’t that story. Promises have been made and, once made, promises must be kept. No matter how damaging in A Wounded Name (2013) by Dot Hutchinson.
A Wounded Name is Hutchinson’s first novel. It is also, if you haven’t guessed yet, a retelling of Hamlet set at a boarding school.
Initially, A Wounded Name is a wonderful retelling with the perfect blend of new and old. Hutchinson perfectly captures Ophelia’s voice and cadence in her first person narration.
Everything here should work.
The thing is, to understand the problems here, you also have to understand the play. (It is possible to read A Wounded Name without knowing the original play, however a lot of plot choices make more sense knowing the background.) And in the play, both Ophelia and Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) are passive characters. Aside from key moments where it is necessary to the plot* these women do not play active roles in the story. They do not have their own agency. They are not, in short, modern women.
But A Wounded Name is a modern book. In order to remedy this disconnect, Hutchinson makes Elsinore Academy a backward school (as the quote at the start of this review suggests) in order to offer some kind of crutch to explain Gertrude and Ophelia. Unfortunately it is done weakly and under any level of scrutiny the conceit falls apart.**
Setting that aside, Hutchinson’s writing is excellent and she aptly blends Ophelia’s world of reality and madness to create a compelling atmosphere sure to draw readers in.
This atmosphere grows thinner as the plot moves closer to the content of the original play. As Dane plays a larger role and readers arrive at familiar events the retelling suffers as Hutchinson focuses on key scenes from the play with varying degrees of success.*** A Wounded Name is at its strongest outside of these moments when Hutchinson is forging new territory instead of referring back to her source material.
A Wounded Name shines in what it makes explicit about Ophelia’s relationship with Dane as Hutchinson hints that they are drawn to a shared sense of madness and grief. Hamlet’s violence and temper are present for anyone to see in the play but again Hutchinson makes it a concrete detail by tying Dane’s physical affection for Ophelia with physical abuse.****
Horatio is another interesting aspect here. Being a Shakespearean retelling, homoerotic undertones are probably inevitable. That said, in some ways, the direction Hutchinson took with Horatio’s relationship with Hamlet seemed to invalidate some of the solidity of their friendship.***** Laertes also suffers in his modern translation here.
A Wounded Name is an obvious read for anyone interested in Shakespeare, or boarding schools, or even mental illness. Whether it stands on its own–without the original play–may be open to interpretation. Regardless, Hutchinson offers interesting and often original insights into one of literature’s most mercurial and enigmatic characters. Furthermore her beautiful, well-structured prose mark her as an author to watch.
*Gertrude choosing to re-marry, Ophelia’s death, and so on.
**The backwardness of Elsinore Academy–the casual sexism and training the female students to be wives instead of powerhouses in their own right–is explained in a tension between Elsinore and a rival school but it never quite makes sense. The other school is headed by Reggie Fortins and it also felt like a missed opportunity letting Fortinbras once again be a marginal character and also a contemporary of Hamlet’s father instead of Dane (young Hamlet) himself.
***Readers of Hamlet will know which scenes to expect. Those who have not read Hamlet will recognize scenes from when the dialogue becomes unbelievably wordy as Hutchinson tries to transfer whole segments of the play part and parcel into the novel. Yorrick, sadly, does not appear. Hamlet’s “Get thee to a nunnery” speech also loses all meaning in a fuzzy reinterpretation that works with the contemporary setting while losing all of the original bite and double meaning.
****Literally every time Hamlet touches Ophelia, he hurts her. It makes for an interesting commentary on domestic abuse and violence against women. However, the way Ophelia just takes anything Dane condescends to give her is deeply troubling.
*****I don’t think it was Hutchinson’s intent at all, but one reading of Horatio’s feelings for Dane in the novel seems to suggest that strength of friendship wasn’t enough to bind these two young men together.
Possible Pairings: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron, The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith
*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*