The Bard’s lost work

The Book of Air and Shad­ows By Michael Gruber HarperCollins, 544pp, $ 32.99

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Gold

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.

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