Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Title: Hamnet
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

New York Times Notable Book (2020), Best Book of 2020: GuardianFinancial TimesLiterary Hub, and NPR.

Hamnet is a powerful, emotional, beautifully written story about grief, mourning, and sorrow. Also, Shakespeare.

In Hamnet, the main point-of-view character is Agnes, although we do get passages from the perspectives of Agnes’s children and husband too. Agnes is gifted with sight and special powers. A talented healer, she can also see people’s futures simply by touching them. About herself, she has one clear vision: She will be the mother of two children.

When Agnes meets her husband, the son of a disreputable glovemaker and Latin tutor to her stepbrothers, they’re immediately drawn to one another, and eventually marry. Agnes can see her husband’s unhappiness casting a shadow over their lives. He lacks purpose, a means of fulfilling his own pursuits — so she sends him off to London, ostensibly to further his father’s business interests there. They plan for him to get settled, then send for Agnes and their children.

But all does not go as intended. Already the parents of a healthy girl, Agnes soon delivers not the 2nd child she expects, but a 2nd and 3rd. The twins are a girl and a boy, the girl born so weak and fragile that she was not expected to survive. She names the babies Hamnet and Judith, and they are inseparable. It soon becomes clear that moving to London will never be an option for Agnes and her children — Judith’s health is too delicate to allow her to live in a crowded, dirty city. And so Agnes and her husband live apart, with him returning for visits when he can, although he’s achieving success as a playwright and creating a separate life for himself in the world of theater.

But Agnes can never quite forget her own vision, of herself as the mother of two children.

She fears her foresight; she does. She remembers with ice-cold clarity the image she had of two figures at the foot of the bed where she will meet her end. She now knows that it’s possible, more than possible, that one of her children will die, because children do, all the time. But she will not have it. She will not. She will fill this child, these children, with life. She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way. She will defend her three babes against all that lies beyond this world. She will not rest, not sleep, until she knows they are safe. She will push back, fight against, undo the foresight she has always had, about having two children. She will. She knows she can.

When “pestilence” — the Black Death — reaches the family’s home in Stratford, it’s Judith who is stricken. But Hamnet will not abide the idea of losing his twin, and eventually, he is lost while Judith survives. Agnes and the family are plunged into the horrors of loss, the devastating death of a child punching a hole through the fabric of their lives.

In Hamnet, Shakespeare himself is never named (he’s always the husband or the father or the son), but we know who we’re reading about. It feels appropriate for him to be presented in this way — if the story were about him, his life and career would overshadow all the rest. Here, though, it’s a story about a family, and especially about a mother, trying to find a way to live in the shadow of unbearable grief. The father’s way of dealing with the loss, through the power of his words, is just one aspect of what the family experiences.

The writing in Hamnet is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not usually a fan of “literary” fiction, but this novel is an exception for me. The carefully constructed characters, the lyrical descriptions of their world and their lives, and even the passages describing the transmission of the plague are all presented in a way that’s beautiful and haunting and powerful.

Hamnet is a special book, and I’m so glad my book group chose it for this month’s discussion. Once again, thanks to the group, I’ve read an excellent book I might otherwise have missed!

Very highly recommended.

To read more about Hamnet:

New York Times review (written by Geraldine Brooks)
NPR review
Washington Post review

Thursday Quotables: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

quotation-marks4

Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

Miss Peregrine

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
(published 2011)

I read this book back in 2011, and now I’m listening to the audiobook to get reacquainted with the story before reading books 2 and 3. The first-person narrative is working really well via audio, even though I miss all the odd pictures!

I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Take A Peek Book Review: The Steep & Thorny Way by Cat Winters

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Steep & Thorny Way

 

Synopsis:

(via NetGalley)

A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.

1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.

The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.

My Thoughts:

Does the idea of retelling the story of Hamlet, setting it in rural Oregon in 1923, sounds crazy to you? It would be understandable to assume that the plot and the setting are a total mismatch. How can a Shakespearean masterpiece possibly be squeezed into that world?

I’m happy to say that it works amazingly well. As crazy as it might sound, The Steep & Thorny Way is a total winner.

Hanalee Denney is the mixed race daughter of a white woman and a black man, at a time and in a place where mixing of the races was not only frowned upon, but actually illegal, at least as far as marriage was concerned. Hanalee, at age 18, lives with her mother and her new stepfather, the town doctor, and grieves for her beloved father, who died after being hit by a car a year and a half earlier.

When the driver of the car is released from prison and is rumored to be hiding out back in Elston, the rumor mill — and the town’s intolerance — boil to the surface. Joe, convicted of murder and subjected to a horrifying prison stint, pleads with Hanalee to hear him out. He did hit her father with his car; that much is true. But Joe saw Hank alive before the doctor entered the room to care for him… and was dead by the time the doctor came out. Meanwhile, Hank’s ghost has been seen about town, trying to get a message to Hanalee.

Can she really believe that Joe isn’t a murderer, but a fall guy? Can she honestly view her stepfather as a killer?

There’s much more to the story than meets the eye. The town is rife with KKK plotting. A racist undercurrent permeates every town gathering. Non-whites are not welcome in the town’s main restaurant. And Joe has a secret that puts his own life in great danger, with no one except Hanalee at all willing to help or save him.

Cat Winters is an amazing writer, and this era is her specialty. She fits her characters’ actions and words into the Shakespearean framework without ever letting it seem forced. The story flows from one revelation to the other, and Hanalee is anything but a stock figure.

I learned a lot about life in Oregon in the 1920s, the power of the Klan, and the shocking truth about the legal institutions that attempted to enforce racial exclusion, separatism, and even eugenics. While The Steep & Thorny Way is a work of fiction, the politics and intolerance that it portrays are, sadly, historical fact.

I have now read three YA novels and one adult novel by Cat Winters, and I look forward to reading, well, basically everything she ever writes from now on. Don’t miss out on this powerful, dramatic, face-paced book.

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of her other works:
In The Shadow of Blackbirds
The Cure For Dreaming
The Uninvited

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Steep & Thorny Way
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: March 8, 2016
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Young adult/historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Thursday Quotables: The Steep & Thorny Way

quotation-marks4

Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

Steep & Thorny Way

The Steep & Thorny Way by Cat Winters
(published 2016)

I’m *this close* to the end of The Steep & Thorny Way, and I’m loving it! If only the world would go away for a few hours, I might actually finish today. If you think a Hamlet retelling set in 1920s rural Oregon sounds like an unlikely concept… well, you have no idea how well it works!

“Do you hope to get married someday?” he asked.

“As long as I don’t fall in love with a man the wrong color.”

He exhaled a steady stream of air through his nostrils. “I think love and wrong are two deeply unrelated words that should never be thrown into the same sentence together. Like dessert and broccoli.”

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Book Review: The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig

Book Review: The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig

The Dead Fathers ClubTake one devoted son, add in a recently deceased father, ghostly visitations, a suspiciously helpful uncle, and a vulnerable mother, and what do you get? In the case of The Dead Fathers Club, the answer is a modern-day Hamlet retelling that is hip, smart, and moving.

11-year-old Philip Noble’s dad was the owner of the Castle and Falcon pub (he wears a “King of the Castle” T-shirt) until his sudden and tragic death in a car accident. Philip’s poor mother is left to deal with the family business and its shaky finances, until garage-owner Uncle Alan (with perpetually black-stained fingers) steps in to save the pub and woo Philip’s mother, much to the poor boy’s chagrin. Making things worse is the appearance of dad’s ghost, who informs Philip that a) he’s been murdered, b) Uncle Alan is the murderer, c) the only way for dad to rest in peace is for his murder to be avenged, and d) Philip is the one who has to make sure it happens. Nothing like a little pressure on an already barely-holding-on kid.

Philip struggles to figure out what to do, but there are no easy answers. His kind-of girlfriend Leah tries to help, as does her brother Dane, but Philip’s plans invariably go awry, ultimately with tragic consequences. Meanwhile, his dad’s ghost begs him for justice, and his mom is desperate for Philip to be normal, move on, and try to be nicer to Uncle Alan, who — as it turns out — will be around quite a bit once they get married.

From the very first pages, in the opening chapter entitled “The First Time I Saw Dad After He Died”, you can just tell that you’re in for quite a ride. The writing is clever without being overly cutesy; the Hamlet references are certainly present, but the story stands on its own as well.

The Dead Fathers Club is written in the first person and told from Philip’s perspective. Philip’s voice is quite distinctive; his narration flows with little or no punctuation*, and he free associates in a way that’s almost poetic. His fears and obsessions seem realistic for an 11-year-old, and the sense of being out of control is conveyed through Philip’s every action and observation.

*Quick note on the punctuation in The Dead Fathers Club: I was quite amused to come across this post (“30 Things To Tell A Grammar Snob”) by Matt Haig, literally on the day I started reading this book. Check out #9 — I assume that this is book he’s referring to.

As a fan of Hamlet, I couldn’t help but be amused by the shout-outs, small and large, to the source material — even little details have meaning, such as Philip’s pet fish being named Gertrude. Likewise, I did a double-take when I got to this passage, once I realized, “oh wait, this is the To Be or Not To Be soliloquy!”:

My heart was doing its funny beating with no stops in it and I thought why am I me why am I not Mum why am I not the ticking clock why am I not a fish why am I not a loaf of bread why am I alive and most people are dead how do I know Im me how do I know Im alive and I thought it must be good to be dead not dead like Dads dead but to be nothing like when you sleep but then I thought it might be a bad sleep with lots of nightmares like the one I had last night when I was trapped in the black box and then my hand started shaking and I was scared why my hand was shaking and I thought I was going to die and I said Mum! Mum! Mum!

The Dead Fathers Club is a quick and engaging read. It’s touching, it’s quirky, and despite telling a well-known story, manages to pack in a few big surprises. The course of this novel does not run exactly as you’d expect, and that’s a good thing. Never predictable, but always a pleasure to read — I recommend The Dead Fathers Club for anyone who enjoys a classic story turned upside-down.

And a further footnote: Matt Haig is the author of the excellent vampires-in-the-suburbs novel The Radleys, and his new novel, The Humans, is due out in July. Can’t wait!