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Book review: ‘The Death I Gave Him’

I love a good adaptation. Movie to musical? I’m in the audience! Book to miniseries? I’ll stream it tonight! Shakespeare play to modern novelization? I will be at the bookstore in the morning! (Just joking, I prefer ebooks. Please don’t judge me.) One of those examples is a bit more specific than the others, but that’s only because it’s my absolute favorite. I have read many Shakespeare adaptations in the form of novels, and the latest one I checked out was ‘The Death I Gave Him’ by Em X. Liu. It was fascinating and strange, and it provided some excellent commentary on “Hamlet” and on technology.

 

“The Death I Gave Him” is a very clever novel, in multiple ways. This book transports “Hamlet” to a lab in 2047, compresses it into a day (give or take), and cuts the cast down to bare essentials. If you’re wondering, that’s just Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia, Horatio, Polonius and Rosencrantz/Guildenstern (the two are combined into one character). If you were forced to read ‘Hamlet’ in high school and remember it just well enough, you’re probably saying “What about Gertrude?” to which I say, don’t worry! She’s there, just not physically present. She still plays an important part in the story. Laertes also exists, but Ophelia (known as Felicia) takes on much of his role. I find it odd that this book is marketed as a locked-room mystery, since it’s certainly a locked-room, but there’s not much of a mystery surrounding the killer. The real mystery is about why Hamlet’s father was murdered and what exactly he was researching, not who killed him. I do wonder if it would work as a mystery if the reader had never actually read (or heard the basic plot of) “Hamlet,” but I am unfortunately not that reader.

 

I wildly admire Liu’s skills at translating certain events from the play to fit the book’s updated setting. I won’t give spoilers for the book, but I am about to give spoilers for “Hamlet.” My apologies. The most creative example I can give regarding the cleverness of adaptation is Polonius’s (Paul’s) death and its aftermath for his daughter Felicia. It was just so smart of the author to figure out exactly how to do it in these circumstances! The title of the book comes from Hamlet’s speech to Gertrude about how he killed Polonius, so Paul’s death is rightfully a major plot point in this book, arguably becoming the most major plot point. The centrality of his death also allows Felica to step into the spotlight. I loved how much Felicia was able to do in this adaptation, given that she was also playing the part of Laertes. I thought this expanded role was really well-suited to her character and added a lot to her relationship with Hayden (Liu’s version of Hamlet). I would have liked to explore her grief about her father some more (and her guilt is tragically under-explored), but I still loved how much time we got to spend with her and in her mind. I think I liked her the best of all of the characters.

 

I also thought the formatting of this book was very fitting. It’s written like it’s a project compiled by a student decades (maybe over a century? I’m not entirely sure) after the book’s events. The mysterious compiler uses neuromapper logs (the book explains the tech, but it’s basically a record of all of a person’s thoughts), transcripts, descriptions of security footage and an article Felicia wrote to put together the events of that night at Elsinore Labs. I liked the variety a lot! I also thought it was very reminiscent of Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 production of “Hamlet,” where there’s an element of paranoia and the constant awareness of being watched.

 

There are a couple aspects of the book I didn’t love. This one is more of a personal preference, but I’m very much not into human/technology relationships. Because of this, the romance subplot wasn’t appealing to me. A lot of other reviewers online seemed to like it, so to each their own. I also felt like there were a couple loose ends that I would have liked to see more tied up, but I understand that the author probably wanted to leave the audience wondering just a bit.

 

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who read and enjoyed “Hamlet” (definitely read or at least watch the play first). Happy reading!

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