Big Picture

Cover of Enter the Body by Joy McCullough

Enter the Body

By Joy McCullough

In a liminal purgatory space, Shakespeare’s dead heroines wait in silence to die and die again, until the arrival of a girl with hands and tongue cut off prompts Juliet, Ophelia, and Cordelia to reconsider their stories. At first pass, their tellings cover familiar ground, adding sympathy and depth to their characters in a straightforward rendition of plot events, and they amply convey sorrow and rage at the way the men in their fictional lives use and discard them. But the girls are not content with illuminating the stories many readers already know. So they try again: how might they shape their stories differently, given the chance? Suppose a mother lives; suppose a father listens. Suppose a lover is a true partner. What then? Can tragedy be transformed? If so, how? If not, is a better way possible, even if the end is the same?

The answers may be ambiguous in this month’s Big Picture, but author McCullough’s understanding of dramatic genre deeply informs the directions her heroines’ revised accounts take. Juliet, though critical of the traditional death-or-marriage ending that formally differentiates tragedy from comedy (“that’s kind of messed up”), works within them to reach a conclusion that satisfies her. Ophelia turns Hamlet into a play where her storytelling, not a ghost’s and not Hamlet’s, is the hinge on which the plot turns. Skeptical and strongly coded here as aro/ace (with additional interpretations possible), Cordelia of King Lear further troubles conventions as she scrutinizes with growing clarity the role of family and the nature of desire. Not everyone, however, can partake of this empowering self-narration: Lavinia, of Titus Andronicus, whose mutilation and arrival precipitate the entire enterprise, never tells her story: “Not all stories can be told. Some are so dark and twisted, their telling would undo the world.” Yet she, too, shares in the community they have created together.

Form as a mode of personal expression is conscious, deliberate, and stunningly effective here and elevates this novel above and beyond many run-of-the-mill  Shakespeare retellings to a carefully constructed and emotionally resonant consideration of tragedy and autonomy. When they tell their stories, the girls use poetry: Juliet’s passionate rhythms, Ophelia’s fluid verses, and Cordelia’s martial iambs act as vehicles for their agency as well as their revised content. When the girls converse in their liminal between-lives space, they use colloquial English dialogue, while the narrator frames events in contemporary prose.

Their telling gives the girls agency in events, provides scope for slightly kinder worlds, and admits broader possibilities for their desires, but deaths can still happen, and love can still hurt in myriad ways. Reclaiming their narratives does not fix everything. That is not, after all, what tragedy or this particular example of transformational storytelling is for, and these characters are responding not only to the text of Shakespeare’s plays but to centuries of performance and remediation. They make no claim to be the “real” version, instead making space for possibilities and arguing that despite his canonical status, the Bard is only one of many tellers—and that others can choose to tell the story differently.

The subject matter makes this an obvious selection for classroom use and could easily be paired with Caine’s Prince of Shadows or Hutchinson’s A Wounded Name for more Shakespearean tragedy, or Lu’s The Kingdom of Back for a broader span of feminist re-vision. On an individual reader level, however, this will be a revelation for teens seeking to claim their own narrative as a distinct and whole person outside of adult or societal input. A content warning, dramatis personae, author’s note, and timeline bookend the novel.

Fiona Hartley-Kroeger, Reviewer


Cover image from Into the Body  © 2023 Text copyright by Alison James. Cover Design Theresa Evangelista. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Dutton Books for Young Readers.