In this fictional biography of The Bard we meet Pickleherring, an aged actor writing about the life of his former employer and friend after several years of research. He recounts the many tales and myths about Shakespeare interspersed with his own recollections and brief glimpses of Plague-and-Fire-ravaged London of 1665-66.
This book was both a frustrating and fascinating read. Nye's style did not appeal to me at first. In some places the writing seems disjointed, while in others it flows as the narrator recounts a particularly intriguing anecdote or event. It is written in the first person and Pickleherring often addresses the reader directly. When he sticks to the topic of Shakespeare's life, all is well. However I found myself annoyed by the subplot of Pickleherring's obsession with the young prostitute he spies on through the hole in his floor (he lives in the attic of a brothel.) Those scenes border on pornography and struck this reader as repetitive and gratuitous.
What did capture my interest was the recount and analyzing of the myriad legends surrounding the life of Shakespeare, along with the author/narrator's ruminations on the possible identities of the Friend and Dark Lady from the Sonnets. The chapters devoted to them were among the most interesting in the book.
Nye's characters are true to the period, varied and often intriguing, coming to life in Pickleherring's stories. The setting is exceptionally well depicted, especially the scenes near the end during which the Great Fire ravages London.
As a historian I often wanted to reach for a biography or two of Shakespeare in order to check which anecdotes were true, or to see how others have interpreted the same facts.
This book is difficult to recommend wholeheartedly as I did not always find it a pleasurable read, and at times I found it quite tedious. It is not for everyone, but readers who enjoy a very literary style of historical fiction and are interested in Shakespeare and/or the Elizabethan period may well want to pick it up.
I cannot say that I truly enjoyed the book, yet neither do I regret having read it. There were even passages I was tempted to mark so I could find them again. Yet that special magic that compels me to finish a novel was not present in this one.
This review first appeared in the December 2000 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002