As I Descended is one of the most gloriously demented books I’ve read this year. It’s a YA retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in a boarding school and featuring a lesbian power couple. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what’s wrong with the world.
I’m an English teacher and a literature graduate, so I am a Shakespeare fan but not, crucially, a purist; I am quite partial to an updating of one of the Bard’s plays. It’s been done a lot in films, from Ten Things I Hate About You to The Lion King, on TV with Sons of Anarchy (my husband really enjoyed me pointing out all the parallels between Jax Teller and Hamlet), and in novels like Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (which, by the way, is beautiful). I am completely on board with writers borrowing the aspects of a Shakespeare play that suit their aims and bending or abandoning the rest. So I enjoyed the set-up of As I Descended, with a ouija board and ghostly spirits taking the place of the witches, and a rivalry for a college scholarship replacing Macbeth’s fight to rule. The couple at the centre of the story, Maria and Lily, are suitably cast, with Lily’s deranged levels of ambition producing a less-than appealing effect on her girlfriend.
High school drama dominates the first half of the book, as Maria and Lily’s plan for world domination start to crumble around them, while the second half features plenty of supernatural activity, with the school setting providing a perfect background. Talley borrows Shakespeare’s five act structure to build up the tension before a final release at the conclusion; I would violently recommend this book to my students and, indeed, anyone else seeking to understand ideas like catharsis and hubris. I’ve read another of Talley’s novels, What We Left Behind, which, like As I Descended, focused on a lesbian couple; where her previous book was deeply rooted in complex ideas of gender identity and the anatomy of a relationship, As I Descended relies less on realism and more on melodrama, allowing the author to represent a diverse range of relationships without the (undoubtedly important) discussions of pronouns and nomenclature which featured in What We Left Behind. I am a fan of Talley’s work; I think she’s doing something which is rare in both YA and adult writing, making LGBTQIA relationships mainstream rather than ‘other,’ which is so important.
As I Descended manages to be serious, scary and completely mad all at the same time; I enjoyed it far more than I expected and, to be honest, more than I’ve ever enjoyed the play it’s based on.