By Michael McLendon
Reviewer’s note: I was provided with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. This review avoids major spoilers and strives to set the table for those interested in reading the book.
TL;DR or Brevity Is The Soul of Wit
Miranda and Caliban is a heart breaking tale about the loss of innocence. It’s about a power struggle between a slave and a master. It’s about what happens when we move from childhood to adulthood. It’s about the dissonance between peace and justice. It’s about a man who cannot be tamed. It’s about a woman who cannot be fooled. It can be all those things and more because at the center lies a deeply personal story about two young people that we grow deeply affectionate for.
Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
It is no timid thing to set a novel in the context of what is widely considered one of Shakespeare’s finest plays. The story of which is significant and well known to me as an actor who has portrayed the role of Caliban. It’s that connection that incited my interest in Carey’s novel, and Carey rewarded that interest with a powerfully personal and beautiful story. I don’t know if I’d say that some version of The Tempest is necessarily required viewing/reading to get the full impact from this novel, but I do know that my relationship to the play colored my experience and expectations.
The thing is that she does it so well. The language of the book is extremely readable yet ever so slightly heightened so that when she pulls direct quotes from the play in part or in whole they don’t feel out of place. Perhaps just as important is that narratively it fits as well. The bulk of the novel is set several years before the 24 hours of the events of the play. Shakespeare however did offer more than a little exposition throughout which Carey takes as inspiration to grow and expand upon as she tells Miranda and Caliban’s side of the story. There are contradictions to the story of The Tempest too; contradictions which to me seem to say perhaps the play is from Prospero’s perspective and therefore more than a little magnanimous to his faults and sins.
Double, Double Toil and Trouble
Yes there is plenty of magic and fantastical creatures to be experienced here. There are spirits of air and earth. There are gods beseeched and storms summoned. Carey weaves the nature of Prospero’s magic and the magic of the island so naturally into her story that they necessarily can’t be separated, and yet in reflecting on the book my thoughts are filled with the emotional and intellectual journeys of the characters rather than the spectacle created by the magic.
The Wise Man Knows Himself to be a Fool
“Tis the fine edge of a blade that divides innocence from ignorance…”
For me every good story has a core idea. Not necessarily a message but perhaps a value or an essential truth that it searches out or questions the nature of. For me that exists in Miranda and Caliban as that divide between innocence and ignorance that Ariel codifies in the above quote to Miranda. Because at its heart this is a coming of age tale. Both of our characters experience puberty in near isolation. They have no older siblings or understanding guides. What they have is Ariel and Prospero dispensing truth (as they see it) quite stingily in a way that serves to cut as much as it instructs.
It’s in this aspect that Carey shines with a subtle brilliance. We as the reader likely have a much different perspective than our characters. We long to reach through the pages and tell them that they’re not at fault, they’re not to blame for the sins of their parents. We want to tell them that they’re dealing with a cocktail of abusive behavior and the normal struggles of growing up. But we can’t. And yet Miranda and Caliban are neither one idiots. They occasionally sift through the confusing lies and secrets and reach something close to the truth. Their ability to do that keeps us on the edge of our seat despite knowing the ending that awaits us when we catch up to the events of the play.
There’s Daggers in Men’s Smiles
“I will be a good servant. I will smile and say the word Master.”
It’s that quiet, inner search for the truth by our heroes that creates a thread of subversiveness throughout the story. What is a moral response to immoral totalitarianism (quite the microcosm here since Prospero is father, master, magus, and the essential ruler of the island)? How does one untie the knot of a parent-child relationship that is a mix of dependency, love, fear, and mistrust? How does, if even one should, protect others from an unaccepting world? These are difficult questions that Carey explores in a very specific, personal way. It’s not a sermon or a parable but it does cause reflection. Reflection that has meaning because we grow to love Caliban and Miranda so very much.
Present Mirth Hath Present Laughter
I couldn’t close my review without first saying that as emotionally powerful and empathetic as this book is, it’s not without a little fun. Caliban is genuinely funny and by putting us in his shoes we are offered the privilege to laugh with him and not at him. Miranda has a biting wit that deflates the pomposity of her father even if she must do so in the confines of her own head. That sense of humor is part of what allows our characters to carry on in spite of their adversity.
Our Revels Now Are Ended
I highly recommend this book for anyone who has a passing affection for The Tempest and the character of Caliban. I also recommend it to anyone who wants a fantasy story with the intimacy of four characters, where the fate of two persons and their well being is the focus. It’s the story of young adults living in an oppressive society, but that oppression isn’t tall white buildings and an evil regime- it’s one man with hate, vengeance, and pride as his ruling council. Miranda and Caliban succeeds because it distills these big ideas on such a personal level with clarity and compassion.