Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady by Sally O'Reilly

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: April 8, 2014

The daughter of a Venetian musician, Aemilia Bassano came of age in Queen Elizabeth’s royal court. The Queen’s favorite, she develops a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a young woman known not only for her beauty but also her sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemilia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, but her position is precarious. Then she crosses paths with an impetuous playwright named William Shakespeare and begins an impassioned but ill-fated affair. A decade later, the Queen is dead, and Aemilia Bassano is now Aemilia Lanyer, fallen from favor and married to a fool. Like the rest of London, she fears the plague. And when her young son Henry takes ill, Aemilia resolves to do anything to save him, even if it means seeking help from her estranged lover, Will—or worse, making a pact with the Devil himself. In rich, vivid detail, Sally O’Reilly breathes life into England’s first female poet, a mysterious woman nearly forgotten by history. Full of passion and devilish schemes, Dark Aemilia is a tale worthy of the Bard.

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Sally O'Reilly's Dark Aemilia is unlike any Shakespeare inspired piece I've ever encountered. Offering a unique twist on the Bard's Dark Lady, I found the tale bold and imaginative. It is rough in several places and ultimately fell into the 'not for me' category, but that does not mean it was entirely without merit.   

Though they share remarkably few scenes, the tortured relationship O'Reilly crafted between Will and Aemilia held a lot of appeal for me. Spanning Will's career, it was easy to imagine his conflict of emotions and how they might have influenced his writing over time. I also appreciated how their mutual interests served as a double edged sword.  

I also appreciated the atmospheric quality of the narrative. Taking place in the streets of London, O'Reilly is faithful to history and gives her readers an appropriately grim illustration of life under both Elizabeth and James. The night Marie goes into labor and the plague scenes are shocking, but I felt such moment brought authenticity to the narrative and emphasized the realities of the period. 

That said, there are several instances in which I feel the author's explicitness crude, vulgar, and entirely unnecessary...

I wonder how many times she’s sucked off Inchbald to earn enough to buy such an extravagant gewgaw. Or perhaps he gave it to her in fair exchange, for services rendered. Oh, Lord, now I can see her lips, pulsing away at his groin! And the white crumbs of her face powder, dusting his curly pubes.

Yeah... I really didn't need that mental image and I don't think it really added much to Aemilia's story. 

I was also irked that the flow of the narrative often came across as forced, awkward, and irrational. Take for example the scene where Elizabeth calls Aemilia to her deathbed after a ten year absence. Maybe it is just me, but I felt the moment far-fetched within the context of the story. It struck me as an unnatural choice, a scene fueled by the author's desire to write Elizabeth's character rather than plausible context. 

Finally, I really didn't like O'Reilly characterization of Lilith. Conceptually I felt the cult of women made great reading material, but I feel very strongly that O'Reilly took the idea too far in allowing the supernatural to materialize as a tangible force in Aemilia's world. The end result is less historic fiction than it is historic fantasy and undermined her own ambition to 'tell a story that was [both] authentic and historically accurate.'  

In sum, Dark Aemilia is an intriguing tale, but one I feel best appreciated by those who approach it with an open mind and strong stomach.

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'Some poets write pretty sonnets to their lady-love. Not he. If there is such a thing as a hate sonnet, then I have been presented with that very thing.'
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