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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

What is Hamnet, or a hamnet? Is it a small cigar, a misspelling of the title of a famous play, a Persian cloak, the winner of the of Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020? The latter of course. It won from a strong field that included Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. 

I am not interested in whether this book is better than those others on the shortlist, (which you can find here). I am concerned to look at the merits of this novel and to explore its craft. It is the story of a family, how they are tied together and how those ties are stretched when the son dies aged eleven. 

Hamnet

The family lives in Stratford-on-Avon in the late sixteenth century, the father is away in London where he has success as a playwright. There are three children, Susanna and the twins Judith and Hamnet. The novel starts on a summer’s afternoon. 

A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.
The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.
Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor. (3)

This is Hamnet, desperate to find assistance because Judith is very sick.

The story does not unfold in a straightforward chronological way. Not much about the construction of this novel is straightforward. Here are four aspects of the novel worth noting.

First, the family is inspired by Shakespeare’s. But the name is never mentioned. Not even the playwright’s first name. He is always ‘the husband’ or ‘the father’. This emphasises the family relationships and it allows the author some freedom in imagining how this family lived. So few documentary records survive of his life that we have enormous gaps in our knowledge. We know about land purchases, education at the Grammar School and his will in which he left his second-best bed to his wife. (The mystery of this bequest is explained in passing.)

Second, Hamnet died of the plague, or pestilence in this novel. There is, of course, a resonance with our own experience of a pestilence. I found myself comparing symptoms, transmissibility, precautions and so on. It’s like noting that people in films are not wearing masks or observing social distance guidelines. 

Third, in telling the story Maggie O’Farrell leaps from one time zone to another, we go forwards and backwards within the family’s life. This results in the reader knowing more than the characters: about the death of Hamnet, or the father’s success in London, for example. We are not being asked to wonder whether a child will die. Instead, we are asked to focus on the relationships, the strength of the ties and how individuals will deal with the grief. She also tells the story in the present tense, which brings us close to the action and to the characters. 

Fourth, Maggie O’Farrell’s writes exceptionally well about place, and her descriptive powers recreate the Warwickshire countryside, the town and houses in which the family live, even the bustle of London’s Southbank. In my copy (perhaps all copies?) there is an afterword about how a visit to Stratford allowed her to recreate the first scene, Hamnet jumping down the stairs, and the geography of the house informs much of the novel. 

Grief and Loss

Hamnet is about grief and loss within a family. For Judith losing a twin is a special kind of loss. She cannot believe that he will disappear completely from her life, and searches at night, following a suggestion from one of her mother’s customers. Agnes and her husband are both distraught, finding it hard to go on with their lives in Stratford and in London. They have been a strong unit, despite separation, up to this point, but Hamnet’s death nearly breaks their partnership. The novel challenges the idea that when infant and child mortality were high and part of everyday life, death was not as difficult for parents as it is today. 

Agnes

Agnes, the wife and mother, is the spine of the novel. One friend suggested she is a bit too hippy-dippy bare-foot new-age herbalist for her taste. I found her ability to read people and to experience the dead and see the future rather irritating. This kind of mystical otherworld capacity always challenges my belief in a character’s authenticity. 

On the other hand, she is perceptive, strong, individual and rebellious. She is not too bothered by how the people of Stratford see her, nor by her stepmother’s disapproval. She is more discerning than his family about her husband and his talents. He has not distinguished himself when Agnes disappears when she is about to give birth to their first child. He seeks out her brother, Bartholomew who tells the young husband what Agnes had said about her choice of husband.

‘… you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.’
The husband stares, as if he can’t believe what he is hearing. His face is anguished, pained, astonished. ‘She said that?’
Bartholomew nods. ‘Now I can’t pretend to understand her choice, in marrying you, but I do know one thing about my sister. You want to know what it is?’
‘Yes.’
‘She is rarely wrong. About anything. It’s a gift or a curse, depending upon who you ask. So if she thinks that about you, there’s a possibility that it’s true.’ (162-3)

Bullied by his father, no trade to follow, a family to support, the young man has not demonstrated much potential. We understand that Agnes’s support was crucial.

The playwright

Agnes’s husband is never named and Maggie O’Farrell has had to create his early life from the scant documentary evidence. We know little of how he got on when he first went to London, or how he maintained his relations with his family, nor what he did when the plague closed the theatres in London. 

But there is the play that bears the name of his dead son (Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable in the 1590s, it seems). Her marriage appears to be at breaking point when Agnes finds that her husband has used their son’s name as the title of a play. She travels to London with Bartholomew to confront him about this heartlessness and finds that he has channelled his grief into a recreation of his son. 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, published in 2020 by Tinder Press 386pp

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A prize-winning novel that is an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, set in the present day? Already chosen by my reading group as our August book? There was no reason not to get stuck into this one.

Summary of Home Fire (no spoilers)

The story follows the misfortunes of one Pakistani-origin family living in West London. The children are orphans. Father was rarely there, a fighter for the so-called Muslim causes, who died somewhere between Bagram and Guantanamo. Mother died suddenly leaving Isma to bring up the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz with the help of local families, especially Aunty Naseem. The action takes place about 3 or 4 years ago against this background.

We meet Isma as she is about to board a plane for Boston where she plans to take up her doctoral studies again. The twins have grown up and she can leave them in the care of others. The usual airport irritations of the security checks are much greater for her, both at Heathrow and also when she lands. She is a Muslim and must be closely questioned. Knowing this, she has arrived extra early and rehearsed answers to possible questions with her sister. The family have a secret that must not be divulged. Parvaiz has left the UK to join ISIS. Both sisters miss their brother badly and would like to make contact with him, find out if he is okay.

In Amherst she meets Eamonn another young British citizen from a Pakistani family. His father, Karamat (Lone) Wolf, has just been made Home Secretary. Karamat is a man of high political ambitions, but known to Isma’s family as Shameless. He favours Muslims who adapt to British life, not those who object to how they are treated.

Eamonn goes to London and takes up with Isma’s sister Aneeka. It is not clear whether she has hidden motives for getting involved with him, the reader suspects that she has, but he is quickly smitten.

The action shifts to Parvaiz. We learn of his recruitment, his training and employment in the media branch of ISIS, and how he now wants to return to London. This is, of course, the crux of the action of the novel. The Home Secretary has just announced that those who have left to join the militants will have their British citizenship revoked. And now, his own family is involved with such a young man.

As the plot moves to its conclusion, both families – the Home Secretary’s as well as Isma’s – are put under severe pressure.

My reactions

The idea of using a modern-day Antigone to explore some very ancient and difficult themes works well. Kamila Shamsie does not confine herself to the original story, but makes enough use of it to enrich the telling of this thriller. The theme of conflict between family and civic duty is central. Those who try to legislate for civic over familial duty are culpable. We must also understand the pull of the family, and the questions of identity in our multifaceted world.

The novel questions easy solutions. It will not allow us, or any of the characters, to get away with ideas about British values being the answer, and continually asks what is identity, what matters to one’s sense of self, and the role of family and country in this. These concepts have never been straight forward, and today they are as complex and insoluble as ever.

I have two reservations. First, it is not possible for anyone to be in ignorance of the atrocities committed in the name of ISIS. Nor of the possible consequences of betraying your country by joining them or of betraying them. [I write this as the current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announces the suspension of the policy of demanding that British Citizens do not face capital punishment.] But for the plot to work the reader must have some sympathy for Parvaiz and believe that he is motivated by his wish to find the truth about his father and that he is susceptible to the recruitment process.

Second, fictitious presentation of prominent political figures is very hard to do. This may be because our perceptions of them are built gradually through innumerable press exposures, not presented as thought-through characters in a novel. I think of the Blair character in The Ghost by Richard Harris (2007), and the Prime Minister in The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987). Both characters are problematic because they do not accord with our own picture of these people. The complexity of a political figure’s motivations and actions seem to me to resist authenticity.

I will mention two other things which I thought were well done. Aneeka’s grief is overpowering and leads to the final horrifying scene.

But this was not grief. It did not cleave to her, it flayed her. It did not envelop her, it leaked into her pores and bloated her beyond recognition, She did not hear his footsteps or his laughter, she no longer knew how to hunch down and inhabit his posture, she couldn’t look in the mirror and see his eyes looking back at her.

This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming paws. (193)

The other small detail is the way the press mangle the names of the protagonists. Their identity is fodder to the news mill.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017) Bloomsbury 264pp

Long listed for Man Booker in 2017 and winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

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