Book Prizes · Reviews

REVIEW!! Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

HamnetOn a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.

Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief.

It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written. 

Oh my gosh, this book. This book. 

So that’s not the greatest opening to a blog post but seriously, you’re lucky to be getting more than just a succession of random letters typed onto the screen. It’s taken a good week since finishing Maggie O’Farrell’s reimagining of the life of Shakespeare’s son for me to be able to form even vaguely coherent sentences about it.

Hamnet is one of those books that lingers in the mind both during and after the process of reading it. It is simultaneously lyrical imagining of life in sixteenth-century Stratford and a profoundly moving depiction of a family being built, torn apart, and rebuilt from within.

I was blown away by Maggie O’Farrell’s vivid depictions of the life and characters that populate Agnes, Judith, and Hamnet’s world. The streets of both Stratford and London are teeming with life, the world vividly recreated and leaping from the pages. From the first few pages, in which the reader follows young Hamnet as he desperately searches for help for the ailing Judith, to the closing scenes amidst the crowds of Shakespeare’s famous Globe, I was utterly absorbed into the sights and sounds of the world that O’Farrell has created.

I was also completely drawn in by the characters themselves. Hamnet himself is a mixture of child-like innocence and precocious intelligence, a picture of a boy moving from childhood to adolescence. But, for me at least, the real star of the show is Hamnet’s mother Agnes. Perceptive and unconventional, the sheer force of Agnes’ personality leapt off the page. Possessing an emotional intelligence that belies her lack of formal education, Agnes’ determination to forge a family for herself, her desperate struggle to keep both her twins alive and her grief at her failure to do so, is the driving force of the novel.

One of my favourite things about the book (because, as you can probably tell already, I utterly adored it) is the way in which O’Farrell has captured the web of complex intrigues that lie beneath the surface of every family. The reason why a son tenses when his father walks into a room, the ways in which a quiet influence can be exerted on household decisions, the undercurrents of family life that spin around all of us. By the end of the novel, I felt as if I’d been allowed to step through time and into this one household to stand by, observing, as daily life played out around me.

This absorption means that Hamnet is a quiet novel. It relies upon the stark contrast between the small interactions that make up life’s daily rhythms and the sudden, devastating ways in which these can be ripped apart without a moment’s notice for its impact. It is a drama played out in small doses, where a decision made one year has repercussions several months or even years further down the line. I imagine some readers may find the pace a little too sedate but, for me, the gentle recreation of family life in the first two-thirds of the novel is what makes the sudden dive into all-consuming, furious grief in the latter third so powerfully affecting.

This might be the first of Maggie O’Farrell’s books that I’ve read but, on the basis of this powerfully imagined novel, it certainly won’t be the last. Hamnet is a beautifully imagined exploration of family, a tender examination of a life cut tragically short, and a profound testimony to the healing power of love and creativity. It’s a well-deserved contender for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and, if you haven’t already read it, I would highly recommend picking it up.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

Don’t forget that although your local bookshop might be closed at the moment, you can also support your local indie bookshops by ordering from them online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop (where I got my gorgeous indie-exclusive signed copy of Hamnet from) The Big Green BookshopSam Read Booksellers, and Berts Books

Hamnet is one of a number of fantastic titles shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. You can find out more about the prize, and about all of the shortlisted titles, on the Women’s Prize website





Book Prizes · Reviews

REVIEW!! Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost WallTeenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology.

Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life.

Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.

I mentioned in my post on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 longlist that I had read and was still processing Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss’ strangely sinister novella about teenage Silvia and an experimental archaeology exercise that goes badly wrong. If I’m completely honest, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it.

Ghost Wall is a strange story. The novella has a haunting lyricism that lingers long after the final pages but, despite its many excellent qualities, I can’t help feeling that there was something missing from my reading experience with it.

The undoubted strength of the book is the writing. Moss has a beautiful sense of style, creating stunningly lyrical sentences from deceptively simple prose. Her descriptions of the natural world; the landscape of the moor and the beach, is majestic, and there is a northern lyricism to the novel in the cadence of Silvie’s voice and her connection with this landscape. Take, for example, this passage, in which Silvie and some of her fellow students go foraging:

“We followed the green-signposted Public Footpath along a stone wall and over a stile towards the moor. As the hill rose, we could see Hadrian’s Wall drawn across the next rise as if it was made of something different from the rest of the landscape, as if someone had drawn it in marker pen on a photo. Dad and I had walked its whole length, Newcastle to Carlisle, at Easter the previous year, and I knew we were near the best bit now, the section where steep ground and sudden drops made a millennium’s worth of northern farmers not bother themselves to pull down milecastles and miles of dressed stone to build sheep-pens and byres. I half closed my eyes, imagined hearing on the wind the Arabic conversations of the Syrian soldiers who’d dug the ditches and hoisted the stones two thousand years ago.” 

The interconnection between past and present is a strong theme of the novel, as Silvie and her fellows become ever more intertwined with the lives of the Iron Age settlers they are supposedly interpreting. Amidst the beauty of this desolate landscape, lie hidden acts of violence that threaten to play out in the modern day.

This should make for a tense and claustrophobic reading experience, as the past and the present become ever more blurred, yet I found Ghost Wall strangely flat at times. At the start of the novel, as Silvie’s relationship with her difficult father and troubled mother becomes apparent, you could cut the narrative with a knife. Yet after a violent explosion at the midpoint of the novel, all that tension deflated and I felt that the story never really regained its former momentum – it seemed by turns meandering and then racing, rushing towards a conclusion that was both inevitable and strangely unsatisfying.

If this review seems a little vague, its because I really don’t want to give away any of the plot. At just under 150 pages, Ghost Wall is a spare novel and, for anyone thinking of reading it, it really is best enjoyed without spoilers. And it will most definitely wrap you up whilst reading it – I read it over two sittings, then spent about a fortnight digesting what I had read before I felt I could form a coherent opinion about it.

Because, for all its flaws, Ghost Wall is a mesmerising and accomplished book. As I said at the start of the review, it has a lingering quality that is hard to pin down. Yes, the ending is hasty and the characters occasionally little more than pencil sketches, but the overall effect retains a surprising force and impact. The overall moral of the book may be a little heavy-handed but the depiction of a complex father-daughter relationship, marred by both a strange kind of love and violent oppression, is one of the best I’ve read. Ghost Wall certainly deserves its place on the Women’s Prize longlist – like the ghosts that flitter through its page, it haunts the reader long after you’ve turned the final page.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and published by Granta Books is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Book Depository

Book Prizes · Reading Horizons

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

Womens PrizeGiven how busy I’ve been with university work recently, I’ve tried not to set myself too many reading goals. I get my MA reading done and I keep on top of my blog tour reading but, after that, I read according to whim. As a result, a lot of the book prizes of the past year have passed me by.

That might have to change however with the announcement of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. Because this list looks absolutely AMAZING!! There are so many titles on here that have been lingering on my TBR, calling out for their turn to be read. So, whilst I don’t think I’ll read the whole longlist, I did want to discuss the longlisted titles and the ones that I’m hoping to read.

I already own, or have borrowed, ten of the sixteen shortlisted titles but have only read two of them – Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a strange but haunting novella that I’ll be reviewing in the next couple of weeks, and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, which I enjoyed but didn’t love. The characters were fantastic and it’s definitely a quick read with a great narrative voice, but I found the ending a little lacklustre and I was left with a sense that nothing had really changed for the characters, despite the events of the book.

The other books that I own are:

Circe by Madeline Miller

I absolutely loved Miller’s debut, The Song of Achilles, which gave an evocative voice to an over-looked character from Greek myth. I’ve heard only excellent things about Circe so I can’t wait to see what she has done with this complex mythological woman.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Myth re-tellings are having a bit of a moment at the moment. This re-telling of the Trojan War promises to give voice to the women of Troy. Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women was the high point of my undergraduate classics module so I am looking forward to seeing what Barker, author of the evocative Regeneration trilogy, does with the story.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney seems to be the author of the moment – is there a shortlist that Normal People hasn’t been on this year? I have to admit to being a little worried that this won’t live up to the hype but I’m reassured by her short story, Mr Salary, which I read and very much enjoyed earlier this year. If Mr Salary is anything to go by, Rooney has a real eye for detail and for capturing the idiosyncrasies of human interaction.

Milkman by Anna Burns

I’ve had this one on my shelf since it won the Man Booker Prize last year. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’ll like it – I’ve heard that the style can be rather inaccessible and it seems to be quite the Marmite book. I’m hoping that the Women’s Prize will give me a push to try it so that I can decide for myself one way or the other.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenburg-Jephcott

Okay, so this one was a random NetGalley download that has lingered on my Kindle for far too long. I downloaded it after my book group read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I found fascinating as much for its author’s compelling voice as anything else. So when I heard about a book centred on Capote, and the literary grenade he detonated amidst an elite circle of Manhattan socialites, I put in a request. I freely admit that I’d almost forgotten that I’d downloaded this but it’s definitely one I want to get around too.

Since the longlist was announced, I’ve also bought An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Ordinary People by Diana Evans, as well as Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton (which is currently one of the featured reads for NB Magazine so available for an absolute steal on their website), all of which sound right up my reading street.

Out of the remaining titles on the longlist, I am hoping to borrow Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive & Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies from the library. Both sound like they could be enjoyable but I’m not 100% sure whether the style is going to be for me – they seem like more literary titles and, whilst I do enjoy literary fiction, I do find some books can be a little too ‘high’ in their style.

I have heard amazing things about the remaining longlist titles – Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, The Pisces by Melissa Broder, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, and Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn – but they don’t immediately grab me and, with eight books to read already, I think I’ve got my work cut out for me as it is!

I would love to hear from any of you who have read any of these books though, as I am open to being persuaded which I should read first. At the moment, I’m inclined to start with either Swan Song or Circe – both have been languishing in my TBR for far too long. So please do drop me a comment down below, or come say hi over on Twitter and, until next time…

Happy Reading!