Book review – “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

I could not have been more delighted at the announcement last week that Shuggie Bain, the debut novel by Douglas Stuart (a Scottish fashion designer who now lives in New York city), had won the Booker Prize. I posted last week about how I had enjoyed the book. I did not exactly predict the winner; I’d only read two of the books on the shortlist and the other one I didn’t really like! I felt more a part of the ceremony this year than ever before. It was incorporated into the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row, whereas usually there is a fancy-pants dinner, and Will Gompertz, in his black tie, appears at the end of News at Ten, to tell us, briefly, who has won. The rest of us, the actual real-life readers and book-buyers, are left out of the glittery literati event. Not this time though; sitting at home, like all the nominated authors, I was on tenterhooks too.

It was the same with the Women’s Prize, back in the summer. It was such a treat to attend all the virtual pre-prize interviews, hosted by author Kate Mosse, with the worldwide audience posting their questions and comments on the Zoom rolling chat. We would never have been able to do that before, when such things would all have taken place in London. I hope that is one aspect of life that we keep, going forward. The winner of the Women’s Prize this year was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I had not read at the time it was awarded the prize, but it was on my TBR list. I have subsequently read it and, if you haven’t already heard, it was a joy to read. It is one of the most profoundly moving books I have read in a very long time; Maggie O’Farrell is an author at the top of her game and she is still only 48.

Hamnet is the story of a marriage and a child. The marriage is that between William Shakespeare (though he is never actually named in the novel) and his wife Agnes (we know her better as Anne Hathaway of course, but her birth name was actually Agnes). The novel does not pursue a linear narrative; it begins with the eleven year old boy Hamnet searching frantically for his twin sister Judith, who is dangerously sick with fever. The house belongs to his grandparents, his father’s parents. His father is away working in London and the family has lived with them since his parents married. The grandfather is a glove-maker and both produces and sells his gloves from the home, where there is a window that faces out on to the Stratford street. The grandfather is a violent bully who believes his playwright son is a hapless good-for-nothing.

Hamnet’s mother is older than his father by some seven or eight years, and they married after a brief and passionate courtship which led to Agnes falling pregnant. This was partly the intention; Agnes, whose mother had died when she was a child, is a wildish creature whom her vulgar stepmother treats with suspicion and contempt. For Agnes, the pregnancy is a wish-fulfilment, and the hasty marriage a way out of her father’s home, which is now dominated by his second wife and a new set of offspring.

Agnes gives birth, as she expects, to a girl, Susannah. Agnes has a deep knowledge of plants and herbs and people come to her for healing. She is also said to have powers of premonition. These qualities are said to be inherited from her mother. When she falls pregnant for a second time Agnes is puzzled and distressed as she feels instinctively that something is wrong or that some ill fate awaits the child, but she cannot pinpoint what it is. Her confusion over whether the baby is a boy or girl troubles her. In the end she gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy, and her husband laughs off her confusion.

While the children are growing, the playwright pursues his career and, encouraged, by Agnes, goes to London, ostensibly to sell his father’s gloves, but actually to explore what opportunities there might be for him there. Dazzled by the theatre and by the thespians he meets, he decides that he should stay in order to make enough money to support his family. He does this with his wife’s blessing although she does not realise, at this stage, how far apart the separation will drive them.

SPOILER ALERT…ish (you have probably already have heard what happens):

Back in Stratford, Judith contracts the plague and becomes dangerously ill. Agnes believes her child will die. There is a shocking turn of events, however, when Judith suddenly recovers, but, exhausted by the sleepless worry and the caring for her daughter, Agnes fails to notice the rapid deterioration in her son Hamnet, who suddenly contracts the disease. It is a brilliant and devastating few pages as we regain Judith and lose Hamnet. O’Farrell has said that she could not write this scene until her own son had passed the age of eleven. It seems it was as profound an experience writing it as it is to read.

Hamnet’s father does not make it back in time for his son’s last breath and this sets the tone of the remainder of the book. Hamnet’s death occurs about halfway through and the rest of the novel explores the grief experienced by husband and wife. Each feels their loss in a different way and their inability to find comfort in each other in such a terrible moment almost breaks them, both as a couple and as separate individuals.

The ending of the book is interesting, I won’t explain how it pans out, except to say that the playwright writes a play called Hamlet in which a young man dies, but, for me, the emotional peak is much earlier on with Hamnet’s death. The rest is a fascinating study of grief but not as intense.

A wonderful book, brilliantly conceived, brilliantly executed. A worthy winner, despite being up against the very brilliant The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I think it’s more accessible and a little more human than Mantel’s book, which I also loved, by the way.

Very highly recommended.

Hot new books for Spring

At last, January is out of the way! The mornings are getting lighter, the sun is shining as I write this and things are starting to sprout in the garden; there are definite signs of Spring. Christmas is huge for the publishing world, for obvious reasons, so the new year can seem very quiet – no-one is spending any money, and we are all curled up on the sofa watching the telly! (I’ve been working my way through all the seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men forever and I made some pretty good progress last month!)

By February, publishers are getting itchy, however, and it seems to me there is a rush of great books coming out this month and in the next few weeks, all aimed at grabbing our attention for Spring reading. Perhaps you are going away for February half term or will be looking forward to some days off at Easter and relaxing with a book?

Here are some of the titles that have caught my eye that I think you might enjoy.

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The Immortalists  by Chloe Benjamin

This American author’s first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams was a prize-winner so the follow-up is much-anticipated. The Immortalists follows the lives of four siblings who visit a psychic, who forecasts the exact dates of each of their deaths. The novel explores some very topical themes including what part so-called ‘fate’ and choice play in our lives. Interesting given the promise, surely, in the next few years that gene-mapping will be able to determine what diseases individuals might be at risk of getting in their old age. Great cover too!

 

Feel Free by Zadie Smith9781594206252

Personally, I’ve struggled with Zadie Smith’s work over the years and have never yet managed to finish one of her novels, but I am determined to persevere at some point as she is so widely-acclaimed. This might do the trick as it’s something a little different from her, a collection of essays, some of which have been published before on other fora. The questions posed by the essays are characteristically provocative and diverse, such as asking whether it is right that we have let Facebook and wider social media penetrate our lives so profoundly, and how we will justify to our grandchildren our failure to tackle climate change. With titles as intriguing as Joy and Find Your Beach this might just be the book that finally does it for me and Zadie!

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Described as a ‘novel of the new South’ this is a novel in a new genre that is attempting to recalibrate our assumptions about the modern American south. Set in Georgia, Celestial and Roy are newlyweds whose lives seem to be on the up, when Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to twelve years in jail. The novel explores the impact on their still young relationship of such a devastating event. Roy is finally released after five years but it is not clear they will ever be able to go back to what they were. Looks like a fascinating read.

 

9780525520221_custom-1b66fc1d3f41e6340606905dfa87fccab46e79f7-s300-c85I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir this time from a great British novelist, written as a tribute to her young daughter who suffers from eczema so severe that it impacts on every aspect of her daily life and her safety. This book is an account of a number of incidents the author has experienced in her life where she has come close to death, such as a life-threatening childhood illness and an encounter with a stranger in a remote location. She reflects on how we are never more alive than when we come close to death and so the book is ultimately life-affirming.

 

35411685How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Matt Haig’s 2015 non-fiction publication Reasons to Stay Alive was a sensation in the way it tackled the author’s experience of living with depression. How to Stop Time is Haig’s latest novel, first published last year, but now being reissued, is a science fiction love story.  Tom Hazard, an apparently normal 41 year-old, is part of a small but exclusive group of unusual people who have been alive for centuries. They are protected by the Albatross Society on one strict condition: they must never fall in love. Tom lives in London as a high school history teacher, but then a romantic relationship with a colleague means he must choose between the past and the future, or, quite literally, between eternal life and death.

 

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton34374628

And finally, a bit of historical fiction. I love a good historical novel set somewhere exotic; I find it compensates for the limited amount of travel I can do at this stage in my life! Miami-based writer Marisol Ferrera visits Cuba to fulfil the final wishes of her late grandmother Elisa, who wanted her ashes scattered in the place of her birth. Elisa escaped Cuba at the time of the revolution. Marisol returns to the land of her roots, tracing the history of her grandmother’s youth and uncovering long-hidden family secrets. I think this might be the one to read on a long journey! Tantalising.

 

What are you planning to read this Spring? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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