Tag Archives: Tinder Press

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

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

With such a name, how could you go wrong? Marvellous Ways is an 89-year old woman, living in a caravan in an isolated creek in Cornwall in 1947. The author, Sarah Winman, did very well with When God was a Rabbit, so we are in the region of popular fiction. How do older women appear in popular fiction? The clue is in the title!

This is the 23rd post in the series looking at older women in fiction on this blog. You can find previous posts by clicking on the category: older women in fiction.

288-yr-of-mw-coverThe Story

This is the story of Francis Drake, a soldier deeply damaged by his experiences of the Second World War. That he did not prevent a rape by fellow soldiers is haunting him. He returns to London in 1947 to search for his childhood friend, Missy. He finds her and falls in love and thinks his future can be with her. But she disappears into the River Thames before his eyes.

Drake has a letter for a doctor from his son, who did not survive the war. In search of the doctor, he comes to the creek in Cornwall where Marvellous Ways lives. Marvellous has been waiting for him, she tells him. She cherishes him and restores him to health, both physical and mental. Into their lives comes Peace Rundle, who has been taught how to bake bread by Wilfred Gently. She too is restored by the relationships in the creek, and finds contentment and love living nearby. These characters are all oddities, seeking a life out of the mainstream, different, regarded by others as best with a bit of distance.

It turns out … well everyone is connected to everyone else in this story. And they all need to be a and a little more forgiving and a little kinder to themselves and to each other.

Gillian Creek by Jonathan Billinger, March 2007 via WikiCommons

Gillian Creek by Jonathan Billinger, March 2007 via WikiCommons

The Old Woman

Marvellous lives up to her name. She is just what everyone’s granny should be, the ideal older woman: a little eccentric, very wise and all-seeing. And she is patient, waiting on her mooring stone, for what? For a man of course. As she waited for the return of Paper Jack, the love of her life, so she waits for Francis Drake.

Well, this is whimsical, magical, a bit of a fairy story, and Marvellous Ways owes quite a bit to the popular image of the little old, odd, cronky woman. She is, however, independent, experienced, a raconteur, skilled in the arts of healing, and capable of reflection on her past life and her present. She is more like a white witch than a grumpy old sod. Mostly she manages her ageing but as she nears her death she reflects on her life.

And it simply didn’t make sense. Who she was then and who she was now. Just. Didn’t. Make. Sense. (250)

Marvellous is 89, and very wise. She has loved (two men and a woman) and learned the craft of midwifery, and to live alone in her caravan beside the creek. She believes she is the daughter of a mermaid, a black woman brought by her father to Cornwall. She has the gift of foresight, knowing when important people will come, their troubles and how to cure them. It is an unrealistic but strong version of an older woman.

Upper reaches of Gillian Creek by Rod Aliday, July 2008 via WikiCommons

Upper reaches of Gillian Creek by Rod Aliday, July 2008 via WikiCommons

The writing

Rich in imagery, this is a feel-good book to curl up with. It owes something to magical realism. Here are the opening paragraphs of A Year of Marvellous Ways.

So here she was, old now, standing by the roadside waiting.

Ever since she had entered her ninetieth year Marvellous Ways spent a good part of her day waiting, and not for death as you might assume, given her age. She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete. It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream – one of Jack Paper’s dreams, God rest his soul – and it had flown over the landscape of sleep just before light and she hadn’t been able to grasp that tail feather and pull it back before it disappeared over the horizon and disintegrated in the heat of a rising sun. But she had known its message: Wait, for it is coming. (3)

There are many stories in this novel. Every character has an interesting name and a back-story and, like a spider graph, they are all somehow linked to Marvellous Ways. It turns out … how many times does the reader find that it turns out?

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, published by Tinder Press in 2015. 314pp

Related posts

A review on Girl with her Head in a Book blog has some pertinent observations, including this: ‘the question of how one recovers from past trauma hovers over the novel but never quite takes root’.

A more enthusiastic review comes from Savidge Reads. He enjoyed When God was a Rabbit as well.

A Year of Marvellous Ways was chosen for Richard and Judy’s WH Smith Book Club in 2016.

The previous post in the older women in fiction series was The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix.

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews

Six Stories & an Essay by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy is best known for a novel that everyone should read: Small Island. Published in 2004, it won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Orange ‘Best of the Best’. It was also made into a tv series. More recently, 2010, The Long Song won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.132 6 Stories cover

Six Stories & an Essay is her newly published book, October 2014. It is intimate, and lets us into her motivation and her development as a writer. She enrolled on a City Lit writing class. At the time she was starting out on a painful transition from being scared to call herself a black person to welcoming being called a black British writer. It was a difficult time.

Writing came to my rescue. The course had an emphasis on writing about what you know. So, nervously I began to explore what I knew – my family upbringing and background, my complicated relationship with colour. Thinking about what I knew, and exploring my background with words, began to open it up to me as never before. I soon came to realise that growing up in this country was part of what it meant to be black. All those agonies over skin shade. Those silences about where we had come from. The shame. The denial. In fact I came to see that every black person’s life, no matter what it is, is part of the black experience. Because being black in a majority white country comes with a myriad of complications and contradictions. It was writing that helped me to understand that. (11)

And she goes on to suggest that the black experience is part of a largely unknown, or forgotten or denied aspect of Britain’s life. She concludes the essay with these words

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history. (19)

She has already got this project underway. Small Island is about the period when the peoples of Britain and the Caribbean began to develop shared history here in Britain, the period from the Second World War on. The Long Song is set in the time of slavery in the Caribbean. They offer hard lessons about the intersection of British and Caribbean histories at the same time as reminding us of heartening human qualities.132 SM Island

This collection also explores the histories of peoples in the Caribbean and in Britain in the last 100 years. Uriah’s War was the First World War. It follows two friends from Jamaica who joined British West Indian Regiment and fought in Palestine and Egypt. The dominant version of this war is of the British Tommy fighting in the trenches, a version that ignores the considerable sacrifice of people from all over the Empire, and of women in the war. (I wrote about remembering women poets in a post called Women’s Poetry in the First World War. Lest we forget!)

Other stories refer to other people who are less powerful in our society and we would like to ignore, forget or deny, especially children in poverty (Deborah), newly arrived immigrants (The Empty Pram and That Polite Way That English People Have) and refugees (Loose Change). As a first step communication or a shared language is important, a theme of The Empty Pram and February.

I welcomed the insight into Andrea Levy’s development as a writer. She read the short story called The Diary aloud to the City Lit writing class.

At last I could get my own back, I thought. But what I really enjoyed as I read it out was that people laughed. It was much more satisfying than the revenge. And once I’d made them laugh they seemed more open to what I had to say. I have never forgotten that. (23-5)

132 A Levy2So if what I have said about the stories suggests that they are rather earnest and political, I should point out that Levy has a delightful lightness of touch, a humour that readers of Small Island will recognise. Here is the ending of the story in which the narrator, newly arrived in Britain, has tried to explain that she was bringing the baby back to his mother and is finally understood to be a rescuer not a kidnapper.

My wrist was released and the mother of the baby, who was smiling now, said, ‘Thank you for bringing her back. But you should have told us what happened.’ Then all three women began patting me like a dog – on the shoulder, on the head – as they discussed together whether I would like a nice cup of tea.’ (102)

132 Tinder LogoOne final point about this book. It is published by the independent publisher, Tinder Press (a new imprint), who have produced a lovely hardback book, with beautifully tactile paper, and included photographs to match the stories – it’s an object of pleasure.

 

Six Stories & an Essay by Andrea Levy is published by Tinder Press at £12.99 in October 2014. Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

 

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reviews