The Bard’s lost work
The Book of Air and Shadows By Michael Gruber HarperCollins, 544pp, $ 32.99
THE world of Shakespearean scholarship has sustained itself during the past four centuries by examination and performance of the Bard’s plays alone. His personal life is a closed book.
What’s even more frustrating for Shakespearean scholars is the absence of documents in his own hand. Just six brief examples of his handwriting are thought to exist: his signatures, most of them spelling his name in different ways. Although the play may be the thing, scholars for centuries have yearned to know more about Shakespeare’s personal life and loves. So imagine the world of these scholars if a previously unpublished Shakespearean play had been discovered, one in which the quill was held by his own hand.
In imagining this delightful premise, Michael Gruber has created a sophisticated novel about literature and has risen to the upper echelons of writers of literary thrillers.
Lovers of great literature usually find plotdriven books thin and vapid, and are bemused by the success of novels such as The Da Vinci Code . This success could be why Gruber decided to incorporate all the elements of a rattling good detective- spy- thriller novel into his elegantly written story.
The Book of Air and Shadows centres on two memorable characters. One is Jake Mishkin, an intellectual property lawyer and former Olympic weightlifter, whose pompous British client, a Shakespearean expert, brings him an intriguing Jacobean letter pointing tantalisingly to the existence of the undiscovered play. The other character is Albert Crosetti, a bookshop clerk trying to pay his way through film school, who is party to the discovery of the letter.
Weaving in and out of the lives and loves of Jake and Albert is the letter, a complex, difficult to read but immensely enjoyable device that Gruber uses to create the time and place in which Shakespeare lived and worked. It’s tempting to skip over the Jacobean letter, but don’t: it adds enormously to the centuries- old literary landscape in which the modern characters are forced to think.
The Book of Air and Shadows begins with a fire in a rare bookshop. Albert and his mysterious co- worker and bookbinder Carolyn Rolly uncover the letter as they salvage some of the precious volumes. The letter’s author was Richard Bracegirdle, a contemporary of Shakespeare and a spy and soldier, who wrote the epistle to his wife on his deathbed.
One of the most confronting aspects of the letter is the desire of Bracegirdle and his colleagues to expose the dastardly secret papist, Wm. Shaxpure.
The letter is sold for a pittance to the Shakespearean scholar, who is later tortured and murdered for it. And so the chase to find the play begins. Russian mafiosi, Jewish criminals, sexually promiscuous models, international currency traders: there’s a mishmash of characters you’d expect to find in a John Grisham potboiler. But Gruber is a superbly dextrous literary craftsman and never once allows his extraordinary plot to get in the way of gripping characterisation.
The sheer energy of Gruber’s writing, the brilliant way he creates his all- too- human characters, his research into the arcane field of scholarship that was Jacobean code and especially the overall good humour he brings to his book make this as compelling a page- turner as any thriller at the front end of a bookshop.
The difference, though, is that while readers may remember the plots of a Grisham or Clancy and forget the characters, in Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows you’ll remember both for years.
Alan Gold’s latest novel is The Pirate Queen.