All Our Yesterdays

Image of All Our Yesterdays: A Novel of Lady Macbeth
Release Date: 
March 12, 2024
G.P. Putnam's Sons
Reviewed by: 

“portrays a woman of great intellect, beauty, and ability to read others, whose desire for power forms not for her own glory but to challenge a system that threatens her son’s life.”

Joel H. Morris' exploration of Lady Macbeth's origin story, in his debut novel All Our Yesterdays, delivers an answer to what readers have wondered for centuries. Why did she do it? Its story world is realistic, its natural setting immersive, its spooky details will send shivers up the spine—all the more because the reader knows what is coming, but not why it will happen. 

If Shakespeare's Macbeth is about "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow," this novel is about Lady Macbeth’s yesterdays, and how the Lady’s early traumas led to the Macbeths' rise to power and their later decline in the play. The mood of this novel is as somber as the Dark Ages, and its setting often bleak. It is chock full of witches, ghosts, portents, and predictions. It’s Lady Macbeth’s decisions that shape her family’s future most, yet Morris implies she was more victim than villain.

Most will be familiar with the history and legend that inspired the Shakespearean play. The novel opens years before, when the Lady, granddaughter of a king, loses her mother, and is given in marriage to a vulgar, violent tyrant by her father. Her canny wits are all that keep her alive, and yet of course, she becomes pregnant to fulfill a witch’s curse cast upon her son when she was wandering the woods her last day of childhood. She realizes that despite her vow to

"never have a son . . . never marry, never, never have any child at all . . . the choice would never be mine."

Despite her efforts to protect him, puzzle pieces of prophecy fall into place for both their futures. Her husband storms out to battle after brutalizing both of them and never returns. Her load lightens a little when Macbeth takes over the home that was once his, after he has killed her first husband in battle.

Close to and protective of her son, she relaxes somewhat when she comes under the protection of Macbeth and falls in love with him. Her son longs for a father he never knew and feels betrayed and neglected by his mother. This sets both mother and son on a tragic course, whereby the security the Lady has procured for them turns against them, and they must fight against a destiny that seems already sealed. The Lady believes she knows what her fate is, but even as she tries to prevent it, forces, both natural and supernatural, work to undermine her every strategic move and turn her son against her. All yesterday’s plans crumble in her single moment of judgment and rejection toward her only child.

Already Lady Macbeth's son sees the world one way, in a male manner, and the Lady, his mother, sees it in another. It's tragic that they never share the reasons for their disparate motivations or actions—she, because she desires to protect his innocence, he, because he feels abandoned, unsettled by his mother’s behavior, and thus never trusts her love or feels safe after she remarries. Unfortunately, she was the only one he felt any shelter with. And so, her family history intertwines with his, and repeats itself.

Readers may have concern that a male debut author takes on one of the most iconic female villains in literature, but for the most part, Morris portrays his infamous female protagonist with great empathy, illuminating each cause and effect that shape her actions.

At times, Lady Macbeth seems to step out of character, though. Why, for instance, would an abused, terrified woman visit the bedroom of her husband's murderer, just because he is having a nightmare? Perhaps Macbeth would be smitten by such an advance, but why would he trust and marry her, take her advice, and eventually adopt her son? Historic record, though steeped in legend, backs these events, though not the midnight trip to the bedroom.

The author is most adept when portraying the Lady's son, although with no name except “The Boy,” he serves as a sort of Every Boy, and thus is distanced from the reader. Even so, the novel has merits that outweigh its flaws. The story is believable in its dreariness, the voice of the novel beautifully lyrical. Secondary characters, who enter and exit with little fanfare in the play are more fully realized in the novel.

Morris plays with light, shadow, nature, and the passage of time in seasons to expand on his already deep characterization. As Lady Macbeth laments:

“The days pass. The weeks, the months.

I think of time, how it tricks us. Once I could see my way. There was a day—long ago?—when I had a son. I had a husband, and my son was his. The way forward seemed clear. Now the days are filled with darkness.

Time without light has no season. It is no time at all.”

In the end, the novel forms a moving tribute to perhaps the world’s most misunderstood character, elevating her, if not to heroine, then at least to an admirable strength and a reason for her power grab. The story still resonates today, not only because Inverness, Forres, and Loch Ness still exist, but because brutality to women does. The way Medieval women were boxed in a man's world, where connivance and contrivance were their only means of staying afoot, where youth was prized because childbirth ended it early, and where intelligent, ambitious women, those who didn't fit the mold, were relegated to needlework and entertaining or died through abuse still exist today. It may seem the world has progressed, but in this time with an International Woman’s Day, this is still many women’s fate.  

Overall, All Our Yesterdays portrays a woman of great intellect, beauty, and ability to read others, whose desire for power forms not for her own glory but to challenge a system that threatens her son’s life. Her plotting is done to serve her family in a society that devalues women, but it’s in vain. In the end, all her calculations cannot save them, and in fact, lead to their destruction.