Cowell possesses a rare talent, that of submerging herself so completely in place, time and character that her novel fairly sings with authenticity. It is no mean feat to inhabit the world of one who lived centuries ago, his reputation much discussed over the years, the mysterious bard who all but defined the England of which he wrote.
Addressing Shakespeare’s apprenticeship years until the age of thirty-one (1595), the novel focuses on the ambition-fueled dreams of a man whose early marriage has left him bound to home and family in Stratford. Yet a distant London calls, Will hoping to earn enough in the city to support his wife and children.
Intending only to be absent a year, Shakespeare is quickly seduced by a city roiling with people, activity, and a lively theater, Queen Elizabeth already thirty years on the throne. Drawn to the broad excesses of the theater and acting, Will has yet to embrace his true calling, eking out a meager existence through writing and acting in plays written by his friends.
At home with the loose camaraderie of like-minded friends, Will counts himself among others whose names have been marked by history - Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, a confederation of wildly creative men seeking purchase in a city ruled by class and wealth. Ever loyal, Shakespeare’s early years in London are defined by these friendships, no stranger to the charms of women, either. But for a man whose character is forged in a crucible of love and despair, the journey is never easy.
In Cowell’s depiction of the early years of an artist in search of his soul, two individuals are significant: an Italian singer kept by the queen’s cousin, Emilia Bassano; and his patron, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. Charged with writing sonnets to convince the eighteen-year-old earl to marry, Will becomes enmeshed in a complicated emotional web of friendship, love and passion, an unresolved yearning that nearly is Will’s undoing.
It is this delicate terrain that Cowell navigates so beautifully, conversations steeped in the language of the times, an arcane beauty that tumbles from Will’s pen as he battles with emotions that threaten his very spirit. Tormented by the dark-hued Emilia and the Earl of Southampton’s striking beauty and charm, Will is seduced by each, the three indulging appetite and curiosity with abandon for a time.
Shakespeare’s struggle is soul-deep and thoughtfully rendered, as beautiful in its hopeless passion as the talent that drives him to set pen to paper. The lessons are painful, the grief prolonged as Shakespeare seeks to balance the impossible with the possible, to break free from that which he cannot have and embrace his fate and the words that pour from his heart: “There comes a time when you must know what you are at heart and return to it.” The journey is exquisite.