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.

Book Review – “The Mirror and the Light” by Hilary Mantel

The big excitement in the literary world recently was, of course, the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist. In past years I have set myself the task of trying to read the whole shortlist before the award is made, but I have never yet managed it. I think I read five out of the six one year, but last year I think I only managed two or three and abandoned the intention somewhere around Christmas-time. The Booker Prize seems like less of a landmark than it once was, though; one of the criticisms is that it is now dominated by US-published books, since it was opened up to writers in English from outside the Commonwealth in 2014. One of the fears was that it would “homogenise” literary fiction, although it is curious that this year’s prize nominees constitute one of the most diverse I can remember with it having a majority of women and a majority of people of colour. I would like to read all of the novels on this year’s shortlist, they all sound fascinating, but if there is one thing the past twelve months have taught me it is that I should not be too goal-orientated. My world feels like it has been on shifting sands and most of my plans have had to be abandoned, with the consequence that I have often felt like I was failing at every turn. At this point in time I am just trying to be kind to myself, recognise that things change and give myself a pat on the back for things done rather than admonishing myself for things still to do. And keen readers will know that that TBR pile NEVER shrinks!

The brilliant finale to the Wolf Hall trilogy

The big shock of the Booker Prize shortlist was that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the third and final part of her Wolf Hall trilogy, was not even nominated. This followed hard on the heels of not winning the Women’s Prize a week earlier (that award went to Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – my next read!). Hilary Mantel has spoken of these twin ‘failures’ as being something of a relief – there had been so much talk of whether she could ‘do the treble’ (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies having won in 2009 and 2012, respectively), but remember this is literature not football! I don’t think Hilary will be suffering too much of a crisis of confidence! As an artist, I hope her feeling of achievement is from the work itself. And what a work it is!

Talking of goals, I wrote on here back in March, when we all first went into ‘lockdown’ (I really, really hate that word), that one of the things I was planning to do with all my spare time was to both read The Mirror and the Light and re-read Ulysses (so much endless time), but of course I did not. Both books are enormous. It took a concerted effort during August to finish The Mirror and the Light. One of the reasons it took me so long was because it is so brilliantly written I wanted to savour absolutely every word. Also, with such a huge cast of characters, it was not always easy to follow who was conspiring with whom.

We all know the ending – Cromwell falls out of favour with Henry, following a fairly concerted campaign by his enemies at court, and is eventually executed. Knowing this, rather like re-reading a good book, helps you to track how events are unfolding. This is a really outstanding book, a fine achievement, and one which rewards the hard work, the investment the reader has to put into it. It is much longer than the first two parts of the trilogy, and at times, especially at the beginning, I felt it could have been edited down a bit, but, now I’ve finished it, I’m not so sure. There is no doubt that, as a reader, you get your money’s worth – less than £1 per hour of reading is pretty good value! And the craft, the authorship, the writing skill, and the research, not to mention the years of her life Ms Mantel has put into this book, make it, in my view, a true literary landmark. It seems above prizes.

Hilary Mantel has also given us all a lesson in politics and a lesson in history. It was an interesting time to be reading the book. The name Dominic Cummings (most famous breaker of lockdown rules) will be familiar to most people in the UK. Not just in the UK but in other countries too, there is a culture war going on between an establishment ‘elite’ and ‘upstarts’ perceived not to belong. I do think this is an element in some of the hostility that is expressed towards people perceived to be outsiders. I should add quickly that I do not think this is undeserved (I’m thinking Cummings, but also Trump), but there is undoubtedly self-interest in the hostility coming from some quarters and some people seem to be piggy-backing on legitimate criticisms. Waiting for their moment to strike, perhaps.

Cromwell, as painted by Hans
Holbein the Younger

Thomas Cromwell (according to Mantel) was a schemer, self-interested and a manipulator, but he was also (and I should add that my comparison with the contemporary examples of outsiders mentioned above ends right there!) a brilliant tactician and a man of extraordinary talents with an unmatched intellect. His chief ‘crime’ in the eyes of his enemies at court, though, was being low-born, he son of a blacksmith; he dared to ascend to the very highest roles at court, the chief confidante of the king, but he paid the price, ultimately, for that daring. His enemies eventually succeeding in getting rid of him.

I recommend The Mirror and the Light very very highly.