'Miranda In Milan:' No Woman Is An Island Katharine Duckett's new novel picks up where Shakespeare's Tempest left off, following sorceror's daughter Miranda to her new life as a court lady — a life which proves darker than she'd hoped.
NPR logo 'Miranda In Milan:' No Woman Is An Island

'Miranda In Milan:' No Woman Is An Island

At the end of Shakespeare's The Tempest, the sorceror Prospero and his daughter Miranda take leave of the lonely, enchanted isle where they've spent the last 14 years in exile. Prospero has reclaimed his title as Duke of Milan, forgiven his usurping brother and renounced magic: His staff broken, his books drowned, his slaves Ariel and Caliban freed. Miranda is hand in hand with young Ferdinand, Prince of Naples, whom she will marry with the blessing of both their fathers and the gods. Happy ever after, right?

Wrong, according to Katharine Duckett. When a teenager who grew up on a magical island is expected to become a dutiful court lady, the transition was never going to be easy — and to make matters worse, Miranda finds herself being treated as though she were monstrous. Duckett brings the first of many touches of gothic horror here: Miranda is confined to her luxurious room, which she may only leave with her face under a veil "that felt as though she had run facefirst into a clump of spiderwebs." Surrounded by servants who hardly dare speak to her, supervised by the sinister Agata, who bears an unknown grudge, Miranda finds herself more isolated than she was on the island.

Duckett's autobiographical writings describe a childhood spent similarly isolated, and Miranda in Milan will resonate with anyone who has felt an outsider's loneliness. Miranda finds friends and allies, but is still exiled to the margins; she finds her freedom in walking unseen through the maze of tunnels that undermine the palace's walls and reveal its secrets.

Duckett's story is intriguing, adept, inventive and sexy. Her original characters are formidably vivid: The devout and tortured Agata is a believable antagonist, and the lively Dorothea, a servant girl from Morocco who claims to be a witch, enchants both Miranda and the reader.

The biggest criticism I can offer is that Miranda in Milan often feels like half a book. There's a lack of detail in the worldbuilding that can be frustrating at times. Much of the narration keeps to Miranda's viewpoint, but she's an intelligent character and might observe her new world with a little more clarity. At one point, Miranda and Dorothea prepare to travel from Milan to Naples disguised as men — a longed-for escape, full of the promise of danger and intrigue — and it's skipped over. Next chapter, we're admiring the scenery in Naples with not a word about the journey.

Duckett's storytelling is lucid but, at times, laden with adjectives that drop like rocks into the otherwise clear waters of her prose. When Miranda dreams of her island, we get: "The sky was endless and blue, a shade almost purpureal, cushioning flocculent clouds in its fathomless depths."

Every adaptor of Shakespeare must choose what liberties to take, but I was disturbed that this author chose to handwave away (in flashback) Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda. Duckett rightly draws attention to Caliban's enslavement and oppression, but I don't know that that narrative is best served by erasing Caliban's flaws. One can hold in both hands the facts of Caliban's offence and the injustice done to him, and let Caliban remain Caliban.

Ferdinand, likewise, feels like a missed opportunity. He doesn't get a single in-person appearance before being quietly dismissed from the story. But according to Shakespeare, Ferdinand is the only other person in Italy who has lived on the island in Prospero's household, subjected to his magic. Whether he and Miranda end up together or not, he shares that lived experience with her, and Duckett makes no use of it.

Finally, I have concerns about accessibility. Those who know and love The Tempest will find plenty to enjoy in Miranda in Milan; but no plot summary of The Tempest is provided, either as an introduction or an afterword. Duckett gives a succinct flashback from Miranda's point of view, but will this be enough for a reader to whom the play is unknown? Duckett has written a Moroccan character, but would the story work for a Moroccan reader? Only that reader can answer that question, but it's food for thought.

If this sounds harsh, it's not meant to be. Miranda in Milan is a solid debut, and I'll look forward to seeing where Duckett goes from here. What will stay with me is her eloquent portrait of the many ways in which the world contrives to isolate women, in solitude and in society. In Dorothea's words: "To be in this world, you must always be a little less than yourself. With every day that passes, you must give up a little more. And ... it hurts. If you dwell on it, it sometimes hurts too much to bear."

Liza Graham is a mezzo-soprano and writer, born in Washington, D.C., and living in London. She has been a critic and columnist for the Metro papers, as well as a guest blogger at mightygodking.com. Her poetry has been published in Goblin Fruit magazine.