#6Degrees January 2021: From Hamnet to…

This is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month she chooses a book as a starting point and you have to link it to six other books to form a chain. It doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, merely to the one next to it, although some participants choose a theme for all of the links. This month we start with  Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which was one of my top reads of the year 2020.

So the first link is a very obvious one, namely another favourite read of the year, a book published in 2020, and whose author I got to see in an online literary event: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami.

The second link is the only other book I can think of with ‘eggs’ in the title, namely Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. I not only loved it as a child, but I read it so many times to my own children (during their fussy eating phases) that I know it by heart. As a former fussy eater myself, I could really empathise with the candid cry: ‘I do not like them in a house./ I do not like them with a mouse./ I do not like them here or there./ I do not like them anywhere.’

The more spurious link to my next choice is the name Sam – a marginally less obnoxious character than that insistent, nagging Sam-I-Am is Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The charismatic, brooding, cynical private eye was not the first hardboiled detective but truly defined the genre for all who followed.

Another book with the name of a bird of prey in the title is Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, set in Roman Britain and exploring the supposed annihilation of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army. I was fascinated by this book when I was a child, but my children never quite got into it.

By way of contrast, one of the series that my older son really got into and which I never quite loved was Harry Potter by JK Rowling. I thought they were quite poorly written and derivative, and much preferred Diana Wynne Jones. But of course I was an adult already by the time they came out, so who knows how I’d have felt about them as a child.

My final link is to the wonderful Tales of Beatrix Potter, which was much loved by all three of us. As a child I was probably most like Tom Kitten getting his clothes terribly mussed up, but nowadays I most identify with poor Mrs Tittlemouse desperately trying to keep her house tidy against a deluge of visitors. (Well, not this year, but you know what I mean…)

This has been a nostalgic little trip down memory lane – and I wonder if that is because subconsciously the theme has been one of motherhood (with the exception of Sam Spade, who perhaps needs a mother to soften him a little). Or maybe my subconscious is troubled by the endless debates about schools reopening safely (or not). Anyway, here is our beautiful edition of the Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, a treasured birthday present for my older son’s second birthday.

#20BooksofSummer No. 5 – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never been one to NOT read reviews about a book just because I haven’t read it yet. On the contrary, I like to read both positive and negative reviews and then plunge right in, hopefully without bias, and make up my own mind. In the case of Hamnet, I’d been hearing lots of praise about the evocative language and the refreshing perspective of the Bard from the point of view of his family. But I’ve also heard some of my favourite bloggers such as Eric from Lonesome Reader or Rebecca Foster at Bookish Beck that it falls short, either in terms of Maggie O’Farrell’s other work or compared to other recent historical fiction such as Hilary Mantel’s.

So let me lay out my wares perfectly candidly. I really enjoyed the book, but I haven’t read any other novels by Maggie O’Farrell, nor do I read much historical fiction in general. So perhaps I am not best placed to make these comparisons. Although I do have some reservations about the present tense and jarringly modern language at times, I allowed myself to be swept away by the beauty of the sentences, the appeal to the senses, and the way the author conjures up the atmosphere of village life in the late 16th century. I should also add that I was reading it while I was battling migraine and nausea, so I felt I was there in the sick-bed with Judith and Hamnet. Last but not least, I am such a Shakespeare fan, so I enjoyed this additional insight into how other people might have viewed him.

I allowed myself to be swept along in a current of emotion and drama, as a mother wanting to protect her children, as a wife who has grown apart from her husband, as someone who felt stifled by family and small-town life, as someone living through a pandemic currently. On that visceral level the book works extremely well. If I stop to analyse it too carefully, I might find some repetitions and flaws, perhaps an over-emphasis on description and manipulation of our sorrow gland. I might find that there is no real analysis of Shakespeare’s psychology, little hint of his depth in how he handles the grief at the loss of his son. But, as Agnes finds out when she goes to London to watch the play named after her dead son, there is a chasm between life as it is lived and life as it is portrayed in the arts.

As she rode to London, she had thought that perhaps now she might understand his distance, his silence, since their son’s death. She has the sense now that there is nothing in her husband’s heart to understand. It is filled only with this: a wooden stage, declaiming players, memorised speeches, adoring crowds, costumed fools. She has been chasing a phantasm, a will-o’-the-wisp all this time.

This is clearly a book that Maggie O’Farrell has wanted to write for a long time, a subject that she has been obsessed with. I really enjoyed hearing her talk about it as part of the online Hay Festival. It really worked for me, since I am probably equally obsessed with the topic, and I don’t regret getting a Waterstones signed edition hardback. It’s a keeper for me. But for those who tell me that I should read her other novels, that they are better, I wonder if sometimes when you feel too strongly about something, you cannot fully capture what you really want.