The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

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The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Madeline Wheatley
Reviewed by Madeline Wheatley
Summary: The mysterious life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe is examined in this unusual novel. Written entirely in blank verse, as if by Marlowe himself, The Marlowe Papers centres on what might have happened if the author of Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus had not been murdered in a tavern brawl in 1593.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Sceptre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978 1444737387

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WINNER; The Desmond Elliott Prize for Debut Fiction Published in the UK 2013

Stop. Pay attention. Hear a dead man speak

These are the attention grabbing words that Ros Barber addresses to the reader at the start of this unique tale. Marlowe was a playwright with a reputation not only for his plays but also for his lifestyle. His gory death from a stab wound through the eye is one of the many contentious points in a brief but very lively life.

Speculation has followed him down the ages. Was he an atheist? Was he a spy? Was his death in a brawl faked? Did he write the plays for which he is remembered? Is he the real author of Shakespeare's plays?

This last area of speculation has a long history, dating back to Zeigler's 1895 novel It was Marlowe. Marlowe as Shakespeare has been the source of considerable scholarly (and not so scholarly!) debate. The bibliography at the end of The Marlowe Papers includes a range of views on the matter.

But whatever your opinion on the brouhaha surrounding Marlowe's memory, don't let that put you off reading this book. It is an absorbing take on the man's life and times. Barber's verse deftly conjures up the people and places of Elizabethan England. Try, for example, this description of the contemporary fate of the Golden Hind which captures the ship in a few words

On Deptford Strand, the famous Golden Hind
Whose fine prow Drake encircled round the globe
Sits broken to its bilges: souvenir'd
Into a ship of bones

The characters are brought to life in an equally vivid way. Marlowe's behaviour is brutish at times, but the picture of a man in exile unable to lay claim to his own name draws sympathy.

Barber wants us to believe that this is Marlowe's version of his life and that the reader is hearing an authentic Elizabethan voice. Using an iambic pentameter verse form to achieve this leads her to comment on the need to balance authenticity and readability. This is her justification for the use in her verse of some words that were unknown or had different connotations in the sixteenth century, such as barmaid instead of wench. The only anachronism that jarred for me was the use of bent to describe Marlowe, which for a moment jolted me out of the sixteenth century and into the present.

Overall, this is a book to read slowly and savour. A gourmet meal rather than a Big Mac. Thank you to the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If this book appeals then we can offer you something on a similar theme: The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare by Doug Stewart.

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