Book review

Set in present day New England, Mona Awad’s new novel “All’s Well” is a daring adaptation of one of the lesser-known plays in the Shakespeare canon, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

Awad has taken Shakespeare’s premise of illness and spiritual rebirth and turned it into an inventive horror-comedy full of altered realities and uncanny weirdness. The book mashes up “All’s Well That Ends Well” with “Macbeth” and “The Tempest” and there are echoes from other plays as well. The result is an omnibus Shakespeare adaptation, simpler than the originals, but resonant with Awad’s own voice. The Bard will probably not turn in his grave. His own mode of operation was to conflate sources.

The plot revolves around the backstage drama surrounding the staging of “All’s Well That Ends Well.” The novel’s narrator is Miranda Fitch, a 37-year-old professor in charge of directing the annual Shakespeare production in a decrepit theater program.

Miranda suffers from excruciating body pain from an accident she hasn’t recovered from. “I picture the leg of a chair pressing into my foot. A chair being sat on by a very fat man. The fat man is a sadist,” Miranda observes. Stewing in painkillers, she hopes that directing “All’s Well That Ends Well” will help her gain some control over the wreckage of her life.

Years ago, she had dazzled in Helen’s role, Shakespeare’s heroine in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Awad sets up parallels between Miranda and Helen; both are scorned and in search of a remedy that will restore their dignity. But a conflict breaks out: Miranda’s students dislike the play and want to stage “Macbeth” instead. Miranda, exasperatingly, refuses.

An aspect that distinguishes Awad’s fiction is the sense of nightmarish mental states of the victims of man’s inhumanity. In scenes of dark humor, Awad depicts Miranda’s humiliation and degradation at the hand of her students, the dean and the administrators at her college, and her therapist. The dean dismisses “All’s Well That Ends Well”; students will now stage “Macbeth.”

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Driven to despair, Miranda contemplates suicide. Then she meets three men at a local bar. They offer her compassion and a drink, a golden brew. It revives her immediately. “Do you like tricks, Ms. Fitch?” they ask. Desperate for a remedy, Miranda accedes. The trick: the ability to pass suffering to another by a mere flick of the wrist. It’s a fiendish inversion of the vision of a human community tied together by sympathy.

Very soon, it becomes clear that Miranda has entered into a pact with the minions of the devil. The men, called the Weird Brethren, complete with a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, are of course reincarnations of Shakespeare’s witches from “Macbeth.”

It’s thrilling the way Awad makes the plays shift, change and blend on the page. Reading the novel is like viewing the world on hallucinogens — or a high dose of painkillers. And if the intrusion of trickster devils into a serious story sounds silly, it is. Awad’s dexterity lies in combining horror with hilarity.

In her last novel, “Bunny,” the author elevated a ridiculously implausible plot into a serious meditation on the intractable relationship between art and fantasy. Here, sleight of hand is the book’s organizing metaphor. Awad plays artistic legerdemain against malevolent trickery. One enlightens; the other victimizes.

And what a wonderful study of human monstrosity this is. Suffering, it is so often claimed, makes us more compassionate, more human. But, this novel asks, does it really?

As the plot unfurls, Awad tears away the veils of verisimilitude. We see that the character Grace is an allegorical figure. Miranda’s ravaged inner life is exteriorized as in the medieval genre of psychomachia in which virtue and vice wage a battle for the soul. What Awad has done is to reanimate the deep-buried morality play structure of Shakespeare’s plays with its temptation-repentance-redemption scheme, and infused it with the Calvinist doctrine of grace. Shakespeare moved English theater away from allegories toward psychological realism. It’s interesting to see Awad tap into an outmoded literary form and explore its rich potential.

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While the novel’s denouement borrows freely from “The Tempest,” you may also catch glimpses of Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library.” Miranda is hurtled into scenes of reckoning with what she has lost, what she can be. These scenes are narrated with a lot of theatrical verve.

But, ultimately, this novel sounds more like an experiment in form than a deeply felt experience of pain. It’s an artful performance, but something fails to make it emotionally resonant.

Perhaps it’s the flattening out of psychological depth in the characters. Perhaps the plainness of the novel’s prose — no doubt intentionally employed by Awad to give readers a sense of immediacy to Miranda’s experience — lacks the beauty and observational sharpness that made “Bunny” so delightful. Still, it’s admirable that Awad has reworked a seldom-adapted play like “All’s Well That Ends Well” and given us a gripping and thought-provoking story about healing and redemption.

Mona Awad, Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., $27

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