Miranda and Caliban
by Jacqueline Carey
published February 14, 2017
From Goodreads: Miranda is a lonely child. For as long as she can remember, she and her father have lived in isolation in the abandoned Moorish palace. There are chickens and goats, and a terrible wailing spirit trapped in a pine tree, but the elusive wild boy who spies on her from the crumbling walls and leaves gifts on their doorstep is the isle’s only other human inhabitant. There are other memories, too: vague, dream-like memories of another time and another place. There are questions that Miranda dare not ask her stern and controlling father, who guards his secrets with zealous care: Who am I? Where did I come from?
The wild boy Caliban is a lonely child, too; an orphan left to fend for himself at an early age, all language lost to him. When Caliban is summoned and bound into captivity by Miranda’s father as part of a grand experiment, he rages against his confinement; and yet he hungers for kindness and love.
I think it was the cover that drew me to this book initially. I saw it on the ‘new releases’ shelf at the bookstore, and when I read the synopsis I decided to give it a try. Miranda and Caliban are characters in one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, so exploring how a relationship between Caliban and Miranda might have developed on that island was an intriguing idea.
The story begins when Miranda is about six or seven years old. Her father, Prospero, wants to capture the wild boy on the island, to teach him to read and be a ‘proper’ human being. At least, that’s what he tells Miranda. As it turns out, Prospero wants another servant. He lays an enchantment on Caliban and confines him to the keep they’ve made their home with a threat to take away his free will if he doesn’t conform to what Prospero wants.
As time passes, Miranda slowly teaches Caliban about words and friendship. It makes sense to both of them to come to care for each other. They’re close to the same age, they’re the only children on the island, and without external concepts of race and beauty to interfere, their relationship is natural. And for a long time, everything is harmonious.
Then something happens. They grow up.
The mysteries of maturing are baffling to kids who know what’s going on, but for Miranda, it’s especially frightening. Prospero knows what’s happening to her, but he insists on keeping everything secret for her, as though the facts of womanhood are too upsetting for her to know beforehand. He claims he wants to keep her innocent, but she finds out that he has upsetting plans for her future.
Miranda isn’t the only one to suffer from Prospero’s notions. Caliban, too suffers. His skin is dark and his body is twisted, neither of which make him suitable to care for Miranda- at least in Prospero’s eyes. But his prejudices, especially as presented to him by the spirit Ariel, lead Caliban to believe that his is bad and unworthy of Miranda, causing misery for both.
Events come to a head when Prospero summons a storm that brings a prince to their shores and changes all their lives forever.
This book caught my interest right away. Miranda’s voice at the beginning is so perfectly child-like. Not in a bad way. She’s not childish at all. Miranda is actually quite a precocious girl- not surprising, given that Prospero is so well-educated and her only teacher. The chapters switch back and forth between Miranda’s perspective and Caliban’s, which Caliban’s perspective starting out simplistic and growing more complex as Miranda continues to teach him. The prose is lovely all the way through, and the story is deceptively simple- two children grow up as the best of friends until puberty goes and messes things up.
It’s not that simple, though. Miranda and Caliban want nothing more than their friendship, but Prospero has his plans and his prejudices. He wants revenge on the people who exiled him, and Miranda is part of that plan. And because she’s a girl and his society believes that women are physically weak and weak-willed, he treats her badly and keeps her ignorant of the world and their life before they came to the island. His prejudices hurt Caliban, too, as he sees Caliban as barely human and little more than a semi-useful servant.
It’s hard to do anything but dislike Prospero. He’s so wrapped up in his own little world that he has little sympathy for the other beings on the island. Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel are all tools to him, to be used for his own plans. Ariel seems villainous at times, too, though at other times he’s just trying to make the best of his own situation and spare Miranda a bit of pain. And while the Caliban of The Tempest is often hard to sympathize with, here it’s easy to understand his pain and why he does the things he does in the play. Miranda is probably the most sympathetic character of all, and is far more complicated here than she is in the play.
Re-tellings of old stories are common these days. It seems like there’s a new one coming out every other day, and while it’s something writers have been doing for ages, it feels particularly intense these days. This retelling is particularly lovely, though, and adds depth and dimension to characters that don’t always have a lot of either in the play.
I’ve seen a lot of Jacqueline Carey’s books through the years, and for one reason or another I’ve never read any of them until Miranda and Caliban. I saw Kushiel’s Dart the last time I was at the bookstore, and based on the synopsis, I will probably be reading more of Carey’s work in the future.