Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell — a book review

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Did you know that William Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet? “Hamnet?” you ask, “Not Hamlet?” Correct. Apparently the names were interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day. Author Maggie O’Farrell learned of Hamnet’s existence from her high school English Literature teacher and was so struck by this information that she never forgot it. Move ahead thirty years: After many delays and much research by O’Farrell, the book Hamnet was published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf. And what a book it is.

Like a master impressionist artist, Maggie O’Farrell paints her novel about a family and village in plague ridden, mid-sixteenth century England with such exquisite color and beguiling detail that the reader’s mind becomes saturated with the image-rich, emotion-filled story. Of the heart-rending moments in Hamnet, and there are many, the most poignant is the death and burial of a child. O’Farrell’s ability to make deep, mind-fracturing sorrow tangible is astonishing. Keep the tissue box close by, dear reader.

In Hamnet, O’Farrell portrays the inner and outer worlds of Agnes Hathaway, more often known as Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Not that William Shakespeare is ever named in the book, because he is not – not once. We know that the person who is Agnes’ husband is Shakespeare because it is common knowledge and in the story we see Anne’s strangely distracted, bright husband grow into his profession as a playwright. But O’Farrell has chosen to focus her attention on Agnes, and she builds a fascinating, multi-dimensional story of this woman who, according to an interview with the author on Damien Barr’s Literary Salon (March 4, 2021), has seldom received esteem from either historians or novelists. With stunning skill and obvious respect, O’Farrell has made Agnes the undisputed hero of Hamnet.

An aspect of the book that feels oddly familiar due to COVID-19, is the brooding backdrop of the Black Plague. In one chapter, O’Farrell follows the journey of a plague-infected flea from southern Europe to a final landing place in small English town, where it proceeds to bite and infect many inhabitants. In our own time of Pandemic, this record of the transfer of infection from one country to another, from one person to another, was particularly relevant and uncannily spooky.

I read Hamnet some time ago and was so bowled over by it that I could not immediately articulate my impressions of the book. I have found that when I cannot process my experience of a book in words, I must go to another art form to describe the encounter, which is why there is the reference to pointillist art in the opening paragraphs of this review.

Now, I would like to try to describe a strategy in O’Farrell’s writing by comparing it to the wax resist method of dyeing cloth. Wax resist is a technique used in producing vibrantly beautiful batik fabrics. In the Indonesian batik method for dyeing whole cloth, wax motifs are applied to cloth before it is dipped into vats of various colors of dye. The dye does not penetrate the wax, thus “wax resist.” This results in dazzling designs appearing on the cloth at the end of the dyeing process. In Hamnet, there are times when what Maggie O’Farrell does not say creates the most astonishing impressions. Combine this “word resist” skill with the lively colors and rich details of O’Farrell’s narrative, and just as in the beautiful batik fabrics, the final effect of her writing is pure magic. Treat yourself to an extraordinary book — Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

How Much Was That?

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HI Claudia! How are you?

Thought I would share this book-related experience with you.

Over the many winters that we have spent in AZ, John and I have enjoyed dining at a little family-owned café in Mesa called Mangos. They serve wonderful Mexican food and also have their own homemade fruit drinks called Agua Fresca. For these drinks they use cantaloupe, watermelon, mangos, lemons, limes — whatever is in season. The fruit flavor is incredible! It’s as though you have put a straw into a freshly opened watermelon or pineapple and sipped up pure nectar. Bliss!

Right next door to Mangos is a  second-hand book store called Book Gallery. I have wanted to visit this store for a long time. Last week we made an unscheduled visit to Mangos and there was time to go into the Book Gallery at last. It resembles a lot of other wonderful old bookstores: Floor-to-ceiling shelves, numerous tables, and carts, and glass cases brimming over with bookish items. The possibility of finding hidden or misplaced treasures lures me into these venerable places.

I had a question so I looked around for help and spotted a proprietor-type person seated in a low chair behind the front, book-laden counter. This being the Southwest, I asked the young man if they carried anything by Wallace Stegner. He asked what I had in mind, and I said,

 “A first-edition of Angle of Repose.” 

He stopped for a moment to study me. Then he said,

“I don’t have one here, but there is one at our other store in Phoenix on Indian School Road. I am afraid it is rather pricey,” he apologized.

 “What do you mean by pricey?” I asked.

 “A first edition, unsigned, is $1,000.00.”

“Oh,” I gulped and hoped the alarm in my voice wasn’t detectable. 

“Come this way,” he said as he walked toward the area of the store that housed their Fiction collection.

I followed the salesperson up a wide set of old, worn wooden stairs and we maneuvered around neat stacks of books to a well-lit corner on the second floor. I saw a small, white, rectangle of paper attached to a shelf. It had an “S” on it written with a Magic Marker.

The knowledgeable bookseller showed me their assortment of Stegner’s works in hardback, paperback, as well as various editions of his many books. None of them cost anywhere close to a thousand dollars, thank goodness. I bought three, all paperbacks: Crossing to Safety ($7), The Sound of Mountain Water ($4), and Wolf Willow ($4)

I had not read The Sound of Mountain Water or Wolf Willow, so I began Wolf Willow (full title, Wolf Willow: A History, A Story, and A Memory of the Last Plains Frontier) last night and was reminded again why Stegner is such a celebrated writer. Here are two paragraphs toward the end of the first chapter of the First Part of Wolf Willow entitled “The Question Mark in the Circle.” In this chapter, Stegner returns to Whitemud, Saskatchewan, just across the Montana border, in search of his boyhood identity. He has sought out the countryside, the river, the town, even his childhood house, but the essence of “home” and “self” eludes him. Then this:


“I pick up a handful of mud and sniff it. I step over the little girls and bend my nose to the wet rail of the bridge. I stand above the water and sniff. On the other side, I strip leaves off wild rose and dogwood. Nothing doing. And yet all around me is that odor that I have not smelled since I was eleven, but have never forgotten — have dreamed, more than once. Then I pull myself up the bank by a gray-leafed bush, and I have it. That tantalizing and ambiguous and wholly native smell is no more than the shrub we called wolf willow, now blooming with small yellow flowers.

It is wolf willow, and not the town or anyone in it, that brings me home. For a few minutes, with a handful of leaves to my nose, I look across at the clay bank and the hills beyond where the river loops back on itself, enclosing the old sports and picnic ground, and the present and all the years between are shed like a boy’s clothes dumped on the bath-house bench. The perspective is what it used to be, the dimensions are restored, the senses are as clear as if they had not been battered with sensations for forty alien years. And the queer adult compulsion to return to one’s beginnings is assuaged. A contact has been made, a mystery touched. For the moment, reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied. The sensuous little savage that I once was is still intact inside me.”  (p19, Ballantine Books, Comstock Edition, 1973)

Wow. Such skill! He has achieved in those two paragraphs what any memoirist would hope to capture in their writing, I think, and that is: “… reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied.”

Did I tell you we are in the process of buying a small house here in Apache Junction? I guess this means we will have more opportunities to enjoy Mangos and Gallery Books. We hope to be home to Zimmerman sometime in early May. 

I look forward to seeing you soon!

Much love 

Teri

The Allure of Library Book Kits

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Have you heard about book club book kits? They are available from many libraries. Below are a couple of pics of a book kit from my local library. (The unreadable white sheet of copy paper on the table in front of the book kit bag is the Readers’ Discussion Guide. It has suggestions for ways to run a book club and ideas to help get the discussion rolling.)

BCBK’s contain 10-12 books – one large letter edition and one audio book, where possible – and a Readers’Discussion Guide in each kit. They are the only library “book” that has a return date that is six weeks from the date of check-out rather than three weeks. This extended period of time allows users to dispense the books, read, meet, discuss and return the kit, and pick up the next book kit so that the book club can meet monthly.

For those who want to join a book club but find buying a book every month financially prohibitive, or for people who simply prefer to use the library, BCBK’s are a super option. Laura, a librarian at my local library, said that the popularity of BCBK’s is becoming greater every year.

Maybe it’s time to start a book club using book kits? Check it out! 📚