I’ve been a huge admirer of Maggie O’Farrell’s work ever since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which won the Costa Novel Award, in 2011. I was intrigued by the premise of her new book, in which she delves further back into history than she has before to imagine the context of the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the effect it had on the playwright’s work – including, four years later, Hamlet.
Curiously, O’Farrell has decided never to mention Shakespeare by name in her novel, so he remains a passive, shadowy figure seen only in relation to his wife and children – he’s referred to as “the father,” “the Latin tutor” or “her husband.” Instead, the key characters are his wife Agnes (most will know her as Anne, but Agnes was the name her father, Richard Hathaway, used for her in his will) and Hamnet himself.
As the novel opens, 11-year-old Hamnet is alone in his grandfather’s glove workshop. His twin sister Judith has a fever and lumps at her neck and he is frantically trying to find an adult. But with his father in London, his mother off tending her bees and his grandfather’s indifference all too ready to shade into violence, there is no one to help. Although it’s Judith who appears to be ill with the Plague, readers know from the scant historical record that it is Hamnet who dies. Somehow, even though we see this coming, it’s still a heavy blow. Hamnet is a story of the moments that change everything, of regrets that last forever: Agnes will ever after be afflicted with a sense of having neglected her children just when they needed her.
Short chapters set in that summer of 1596 alternate with longer ones from 15 years before, when WS was engaged as a Latin tutor to the sons of a sheep farmer to pay off his father’s debts. Soon he became captivated by a young woman with a kestrel whom he assumed to be the family’s maid but learned was actually the unconventional daughter of the household, Agnes. She had a reputation as a herbal healer and was known to have second sight – just by holding someone’s hand, she could see into their past or predict their future.
There are some wonderfully vivid scenes in this earlier story line, including a tryst in the apple shed and Agnes going off alone into the forest to give birth to their first child, Susanna. My favourite chapter of all, though, is the central one that traces the journey of the pestilence from a glassmaker’s studio in Italy to the small Warwickshire village. The medical subplot of Hamnet has taken on a new significance that O’Farrell surely never predicted when she was immersing herself in the time period by undertaking falconry and mudlarking.
Although I remain a big fan, Hamnet is the least successful of the six books of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read. Her trademark third person omniscient voice and present tense narration, which elsewhere exude confidence and immediacy, here create detachment and even vagueness (“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs”; “Look. Agnes is pouring water into a pan”). The strategy for evoking the 16th century seems to be to throw in the occasional period prop, but the dialogue and vocabulary can feel anachronistic, as in “Boys! Stop that this instant! Or I’ll come up there and give you something to wail about”.
In comparison with historical fiction I’ve read recently by Geraldine Brooks and Hilary Mantel, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief. My reaction was lukewarm, but this should not deter readers from trying this wonderful writer – if not this book, then any one of her previous five.
My thanks to Midas PR and Tinder Press for the free copy for review.
I was wary of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, as I always am of big ol’ books. Six hundred and twenty pages of small print: was it going to be worth it? Luckily, the answer was a resounding yes. If you’ve loved The World According to Garp, City on Fire, The Goldfinch, and/or Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, you should pick this one up right away. From the first few pages onwards, I was impressed by Hill’s carefully honed sentences. He mixes up the paragraph arrangement in a particularly effective way, such that long thoughts are punctuated by a killer one-liner given a paragraph of its own. Here’s one: “How easily a simple façade can become your life, can become the truth of your life.”
In 2011 Samuel Anderson and his estranged mother, Faye, find themselves in strange situations. Samuel is an assistant English professor at a small suburban Chicago college. Once the Next Big Thing, feted by Granta for a brilliant short story, he has never delivered his contracted novel and spends more time in the World of Elfscape online game than he does engaging in real life. Now Laura Pottsdam, a student he caught plagiarizing a Hamlet essay, is on a mission to take Samuel down. Meanwhile Faye is awaiting trial for throwing rocks at Governor Packer, a conservative presidential hopeful from Wyoming. It’s been 23 years since Faye walked out on Samuel and his father, but her lawyer still hopes Samuel will be willing to write a character reference to be used in her defense, prompting their awkward reunion.
This is a rich, multi-layered story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Along with 2011, the two main time periods are 1968, when Faye was a would-be radical caught up in student violence; and 1988, the summer before Faye left, when Samuel met twins Bishop and Bethany Fall, two friends who would still be having an impact on his life decades later even though they moved away after a few months. Although most of the action takes place in Iowa and Chicago, there’s also a brief interlude set in Norway when Faye tries to track down the ghosts of her father’s homeland. He’d told her stories of the nisse and the Nix, a house spirit and a water spirit in the form of a giant horse: both lead greedy children to their doom, a terrifying prospect for an anxious girl like Faye.
Political protest is a thread running all through the novel, though it never drowns out the centrality of the mother–son relationship: the 1968 Grant Park protest Faye attends in Chicago, the anti-Iraq War march Samuel and Bethany go on in 2004, the Occupy demonstrations taking place in 2011, and Faye’s odd transformation into the Packer Attacker. Hill makes cogent comments on contemporary America, where the “pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.” Young people parcel emotions into easy categories for social media, which also markets ready-made heroes (pop singer Molly Miller) and villains (Faye).
Hill is a funny and inventive writer; a few of his more virtuosic moments include an argument with headings indicating its logical fallacies, a relationship presented as a Choose Your Own Adventure story, and a nearly-eleven-page sentence in which a character has a health crisis. These sections are almost too long – Come now, you’re just showing off, I thought. But changing up the structure like that does mean that the novel is never boring, and its reflections on self-knowledge and how we get lost, stuck in patterns of our own creating, made me think deeply. This is one debut that really does live up to the hype; look out for it, and for the upcoming television adaptation directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Meryl Streep.
First published in August 2016, The Nix was released in the UK in paperback on September 21st. My thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Novels narrated by an octogenarian and an unborn child; memoirs about connection with nature and escaping an abusive relationship; and a strong poetry collection that includes some everyday epics: these five wildly different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old
In this anonymous Dutch novel in diary form, Hendrik Groen provides a full reckoning of how 2013 went down in his Amsterdam old folks’ care home. He and five friends form the “Old But Not Dead” club and take turns planning exciting weekly outings. Much comic relief is provided by his incorrigibly tippling friend, Evert, and the arrival of Eefje makes late-life romance seem like a possibility for Hendrik. However, there’s no getting around physical decay: between them these friends suffer from incontinence, dementia, diabetic amputations and a stroke. By the time 2014 rolls around, their number will be reduced by one. Yet this is a tremendously witty and warm-hearted book, despite Hendrik’s sad family history. It’s definitely one for fans of A Man Called Ove – but I liked this more. A sequel from 85-year-old Hendrik came out this year in Dutch; I’ll be looking forward to the English translation.
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy
By Michael McCarthy
An environmental journalist for the UK’s Independent, McCarthy offers a personal view of how the erstwhile abundance of the natural world has experienced a dramatic thinning, even just in England in his lifetime. He gives both statistical and anecdotal evidence for that decline; as a case study he discusses the construction of a sea wall at Saemangeum in South Korea, responsible for decimating a precious estuary habitat for shorebirds. As if to balance his pessimism about the state of the world, McCarthy remembers singular natural encounters that filled him with joy and wonder – first discovering birdwatching as a lad near Liverpool, seeing a morpho butterfly in South America – but also annual displays that rekindle his love of life: the winter solstice, the arrival of cuckoos, and bluebells. This memoir is more sentimental than I expected from an English author, but I admire his passion and openness.
By Ian McEwan
My seventh McEwan novel and one of his strongest. Within the first few pages, I was utterly captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. Provided you suspend disbelief a bit to accept he can see/hear/surmise everything that happens – the most tedious passages are those where McEwan tries to give more precise justification for his narrator’s observations – the plot really works. Not even born and already a snob with an advanced vocabulary and a taste for fine wine, this fetus is a delight to spend time with. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
Favorite line: “I have lungs but not air to shout a warning or weep with shame at my impotence.”
How Snow Falls
By Craig Raine
One of the few best poetry collections I’ve read this year. It contains nary a dud and is a good one to sink your teeth into – it’s composed of just 20 poems, but several are in-depth epics drawn from everyday life and death. Two elegies, to a dead mother and a former lover, are particularly strong. I loved the mixture of clinical and whimsical vocabulary in “I Remember My Mother” as the poet charts the transformation from person to corpse. “Rashomon” is another stand-out, commissioned as an opera and inspired by the short story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. In couplets with a flexible rhyme scheme, the poem alternates the perspectives of a bandit, a captive husband, his raped wife, and the woodcutter who becomes an unwilling observer. Alliteration is noteworthy throughout the collection, but here produces one of my favorite lines: “Sweet cedar chips were spurting in the gloom like sparks.”
Land of Enchantment
By Leigh Stein
Stein tells of her abusive relationship with Jason, a reckless younger man with whom she moved to New Mexico. The memoir mostly toggles between their shaky attempt at a functional relationship in 2007 and learning about his death in a motorcycle accident in 2011. Even though they’d drifted apart, Jason’s memory still had power over her. Breaking free from him meant growing up at last and taking responsibility for her future. You might call this a feminist coming-of-age narrative, though that makes it sound more strident and formulaic than it actually is. I admired the skipping around in time, and especially a late chapter in the second person. I also enjoyed how New Mexico provides a metaphorical as well as a literal setting; Stein weaves in references to Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and letters to put into context her own search to become a self-sufficient artist.