Undiscovered Country: A Novel

by Lin Enger

Hardcover, 2008

Call number




Little, Brown and Company (2008), Edition: 1, 320 pages


While hunting in the cold Minnesota woods, 17-year-old Jesse Matson's life is forever changed when he discovers his father, dead by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But would easygoing Harold Matson really kill himself? If so, why? And just where was Jesse's uncle Clay--always jealous of Harold, and a bit too friendly with Jesse's mother--that cold afternoon?

User reviews

LibraryThing member emseyb
Thoughts on Undiscovered Country

Two related problems afflict Lin Enger's Undiscovered Country. First, without the Hamlet overlay, the novel feels thin and melodramatic. Jesse, the 17-year-old main character in psychological turmoil over the murder of his father by his uncle Clay (Enger's Claudius),
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doesn't have Hamlet's depth or intellect. He's in love with an Ophelia, named Christine in the novel, who's in danger of being abused by her father. Jesse's Horatio, Charles, has lost his own father through suicide, which is what everyone except Jesse believes about how his father died. Jesse's mother, Enger's Gertrude, has her affair with Clay (she had a relationship with him before marrying Jesse's father Harold), which of course enrages Jesse. You get the idea. There's little genuine pathos here but lots of cliché.

Which brings us to the second problem: With this reworking of Hamlet, the author may have contributed to making Shakespeare's tragedy a cliché. The story of Hamlet and his tale of revenge, psychological turmoil, and indecision remains a powerful one, but like Hamlet's “To be or not to be, that is the question,” -- too many repeat or mimic the phrase in all kinds of contexts that serve merely to undermine its power, turning the line itself into cliché -- this book, Edgar Sawtelle, and others may help to cause the same fate for the play. The changes that such authors have to make in rewriting Hamlet may undermine the play itself and leave those who haven't read the original these skewed, tired versions that can't stand on their own two feet. Edgar Sawtelle, at least, is several cuts above Undiscovered Country -- its story of Edgar (a mute Hamlet) and his dogs has many solid, original moments and on several levels transforms the play successfully but ultimately fails to deliver the sense of tragedy that Shakespeare delivers.

Enger's use of cliché abounds. For example, having the first person narrator write a book, in this case as an explanation to his younger brother of what happened years ago in their small Minnesota village, seems stale. S.E. Hinton, among others, used it decades ago in The Outsiders. Jesse's love interest, Christine, seems well grounded, but her relationship with Jesse seems like just another teen-age romance meant to attract younger female readers. The murdering brother, Clay, plays in a band, a rather hackneyed character device by now. In any event, Enger doesn't make much of it, but how many novels, movies, plays, etc., do we have to read and see before this stale character trait is put to rest?

Using poetry in novels has a long, worthwhile history, but I get the feeling Enger has taken a personal favorite, Robert Frost's "Birches," and exploited it for its cachet. S.E. Hinton, in The Outsiders with Frost's “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” did something similar, although Enger's use seems less clumsy and obvious than Hinton's. Having just heard evidence that seems to confirm his father's murder, Jesse feels overwhelmed by the burden he carries. He goes out to an old bridge that spans the river, and comments, "I felt spent, used up, exhausted. In English class Bascom had read us a Frost poem about a man out walking in the woods -- a weary man, a man who's tired of life." "Birches" isn't necessarily inappropriate here, but does it really enhance the scene? Enger wants the poem to say something about Jesse's state of mind -- it's a soliloquy --, and it does, but why use Frost to try to send a message in a reworking of Hamlet? Enger has borrowed heavily here from two authors. Could he not come up with his own original words?

In some respects, Enger has wedded himself to Hamlet to such an extent that when he attempts to depart from it, as with the looking-back device and the different conclusion, his story falls flat. It's as if the play has ensnared him, and the only way to get out of it is to depart from it at key points, only to undercut any sense of tragedy. By the end of Enger's novel, I feel no tragic inevitability but, rather, the end of a made-for-TV-movie on Lifetime.
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LibraryThing member Girl_Detective
A retelling of the Hamlet tale set in Northern Minnesota. This update follows Hamlet closely, but not exactly, and it’s in the departures and the nuances that this book shines. Undiscovered Country is in the tradition of young-adult novels, told simply in first person by a teenager having
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difficulty with the adults in his life. This would work well as a companion novel for high schoolers reading Shakespeare’s play.
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LibraryThing member ucla70
While Enger creates an interesting, atmospheric tale set in a small Minnesota town, the "Hamlet" connection is weak. I kept looking for characters, occurrences, and motifs that, alas, were not there. Enger's protagonist, Jesse, is similar to Hamlet in some ways, but Jesse is lacking in depth. He
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especially seems shallow toward the end of the story. That the novel starts off ten years after the actual story line was bothersome to me. It seems that more and more authors use that technique, but I don't think it adds anything here. The female characters are cardboard-like (as they are in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"). The tension is there as the story builds to a climax, but the denouement seems a bit flat. I agree with other reviewers that the Hamlet references within the novel are unnecessary. The story doesn't linger but it did entertain as I read it.
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LibraryThing member rebachin
(1.) I liked the book, many people commented on its connection to the plot of Hamlet as though that took something away from the originality of the story, as though Enger was copping out, but Jesse is totally aware of the Hamlet-like situation that he finds himself in and he actually comments on it
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himself. Therefore I don't think it's a cop-out, or a weakness in anyway.

(2.) The thought (although not phrased as a question, I state it questioningly) that sprung to mind as I listened to the final moments of the novel:
Learn how to accept and live with the pains of life, as though they are a person that must go with you everywhere - RATHER than living each day under the pretense that the pains/sorrows are not there. Accepting the existance of pain and sorrow (being real and truthful about it) will allow for a healthier emotional life than denying the pain and sorrow, pretending it is not there(lying to yourself).
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