Bloodlines explores the myth of Lady Macbeth, and the curse of 'the Scottish play'. The lives of three women intertwine: the actress Abigail West (who's playing Lady Macbeth opposite her husband); Jennet, a country girl in Shakespeare's time, who is being tried for witchcraft; and, earliest of all, Gruoch - the original Lady Macbeth.
Gruoch is perhaps the most interesting of the three; married - or sold - to a old man while still a child, she falls irrevocably in love with Macbeth when he kills her husband and carries her off. Despite the romance, though, this isn't a sanitised Hollywood vision of the eleventh century; it's dark, and dirty, and there are enemies at every side. Gruoch may love her rescuer, but she is not blind to his nature - Macbeth is a warrior and a murderer, who will do whatever's necessary to further his ambitions.
Jennet's locked in a cell and tortured until she confesses to witchcraft - her plan to curse the King and his heirs. In vain she protests that the curse is not hers - simply words that her mother told her, which she has never understood. Again and again she protests that her handsome lover is not the Devil, despite his graces and his poetic words. She has dreamt, though, that he will live forever; but recounting her dream to her tormentors will not help her case. Already they are building Jennet’s pyre, and she remembers her own mother being burnt at the stake.
Abby's life seems idyllic at first, but as she plunges herself into the role of Lady Macbeth her behaviour begins to change - enough to make her husband suspect that she is suffering from mental illness again. Abby adores her husband, but she can't make him understand that she's not going mad; that the confusion, and the hallucinations, come from the past and not from her own mind.
There are parallels between the womens' situations: each loves a man who is beginning to mistrust her, but for whom she would do anything; each is threatened by the unwanted attentions of another man; and each has nightmares and 'waking dreams' of a high staircase, which must be climbed - even though what waits at the top is an unknown, but horrific, sight.
The 'curse' is there from the beginning, although none of the three women understand its meaning or its power until the climax of the novel. The usual, half-joking explanation for the 'curse' on Macbeth is that Shakespeare's witches recite a real spell ('eye of newt and toe of frog'). Bloodlines suggests a more plausible reason; a curse - or, more accurately, a prediction - handed down from mother to daughter, and concealed in the words of Lady Macbeth herself, rather than in the 'demented rantings' of the witches. the curse won't be broken until someone understands what really happened, almost a thousand years ago.
Bloodlines can be read at several levels. It's a gripping thriller; the three women's narratives are twined together without chapter breaks, and the nature of the curse - and its resolution - are revealed only gradually. In some ways it's a romance: Bloodlines could be compared to the novels of Barbara Erskine (who is perhaps the best-known author of this sort of historical fiction, which blends past and present), but Veevers focusses on the darker emotions, and the historical context in which the action takes place. And, while it's definitely a work of fiction, the underlying theories regarding the origins of the play are by no means lightweight. A good read, with an element of intellectual enquiry that's reminiscent of Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time.