Hamnet – behind the scenes

Life and death. Roles and responsibilities. Poverty and plague. Elizabethan England.

Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet’ provides an alternative insight into the family life and development of a famous playwright. (Guess who?)

Set in England in the late 1500’s – a time cursed by disease and poverty, it introduces a young girl wracked with fever. Her twin brother anxiously seeks help for her, but their father is away in London and their mother is occupied elsewhere. Where is she? Why isn’t she here to help him?

Time then moves back to when their parents first met, and how, against the wishes of parents and step-parents, they became husband and wife.

Because of this, theirs is not an easy marriage from the beginning and neither seems to be able to fulfil all the expectations of family and society.

The mother, Agnes, has gifts inherited from her mother – an unusual intuition, the ability to heal and a quiet way of observing and understanding the people around her. And the father strives for more than the village of Stratford-upon-Avon can offer his abilities, spending much of his time in London – away from Agnes, Susanna, Hamnet and Judith.

“Two extraordinary people.

A love that draws them together.

A loss that tears them apart.”

‘Hamnet’ describes the challenging settings and experiences of many people in these times, when infectious diseases were easily spread and poorly controlled. (How a flea in Alexandria is able to impact many on a sea journey and end up killing a child in England is thoughtfully described. Its final impact on the family is traumatic.) Agnes’ healing herbs are however a comfort, and sometimes a cure, for the village people who come to her for help – even though they do not entirely approve of her way of ‘being’.

Through the visions Agnes experiences, we know that someone in her family will be lost to the plague – but even she is unable to understand who it might be. The struggles of the family are multiplied as the parents each seek to realise their own role in life. And it is particularly heartbreaking as they deal with the death of their child, in different ways. Neither will be hurried in their grief.

Visiting England in the late 1500s through the tragic events of this family and their community is a real and thought-provoking experience. You can smell their home, feel their conflicts, empathise with their struggles, and sense their great sorrow. Life is far from the glossy pictures we might have about a renowned playwright the whole world now honours. Historical fiction at its finest; accessible and engaging, with lots to ponder.

Here, Maggie O’Farrell talks about Hamnet:

# Awarded 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Promise Me Happy

Nate wonders what really makes people who they are. Is it determined at birth, or is it a result of how you are raised? Either way, things are not looking good for him. His dad is abusive, his mother is dead and he’s just finished 18 months in juvenile detention. Now he is off to some unknown location to stay with some unknown family member – his uncle, his mother’s brother.

It’s like he has completely shut down in juvie, and can’t see anything positive ahead – especially when he first meets his uncle, Mick. Neither Nate or Mick are lovable characters when we first meet them – in many ways, they are alike.

As Nate slowly explores his uncle’s community and the people within it, he begins to recollect happier times with his mum and a personal connection with the local environment. Quirky characters like Gem and Henry cross his path, and his thoughts start to move outside himself. They are authentic characters and you will love them both for different reasons.

Nate sees Gem as unique, and more beautiful inside and out than any other girl he has known. Henry is an eccentric little 8 year-old, who provides a bit of local knowledge to Nate, and at times, some unwanted companionship – till he grows on him. Even his relationship with Mick moves well beyond its gruff beginning.

However, encounters with the local tough guys test his self-control, and he begins to wonder again, if he is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, unable to control his anger.

‘Promise Me Happy’ by Robert Newton is a great journey which makes you wonder about the ways people deal with confrontation, being different and how people can react when someone important leaves their lives. Keep the tissues handy, but feel happy that you have been on the journey with Nate in the end.

What is it like to lose someone close to you?

In what ways can we deal with our grief and remember the important things? to keep our emotions in check?

# ‘Promise Me Happy’ is on the 2020 CBCA Longlist for Older Readers

## Robert Newton also wrote When We Were Two (which was awarded the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2012) and Mr Romanov’s Garden. His other books can be found here.

### Available as an ebook.

Mists and memories

imageAxl and his wife Beatrice cannot understand why they can no longer have a candle in the darkness of their modest home at the edge of their village warren – but that is what had been decided. Struggling also with the taunts of unruly, undisciplined children and the vagueness overcoming other villagers, they decide to embark on a journey to see their son.

Even though, for an elderly couple, such a journey looms as an ominous unknown venture, they feel compelled to attempt it  – and so Ishiguro weaves a veil of intrigue over their travels, and they move amongst differing villages and cultural contexts.

Others they meet along the way include warriors out for revenge, misguided monks upholding tradition and rituals, outcastes of various types, and a brave, though elderly, knight – all with passions of their own, and ideals conflicting with one another.

The world Ishiguro has created has mystical elements, including a mist of forgetfulness, dragons, pixies and ogres. Within this, human spirit battles historical conflicts, myths of the past and present, and that ‘which-may-be-remembered-but-probably-shouldn’t’.

A powerful mist has robbed many of their memories – both good and bad – and Axl and Beatrice had seen evidence of this occurring more and more before they left on their journey. They too, strugged to recall much of their past, but in their hearts they sought to find their son, and so their journey begins.

‘The Buried Giant’ recalls parts of history – the conflict between the Saxons and the Britons, but talks of a time of forgetting when they live peacefully side by side. Niggling memories are what haunt those like Axl and Beatrice, Master Wistan and Sir Gawain, and suspicion and cultural beliefs hunt young Edwin from his native home.

Their fragmented journey together, where loyalties are tested time and again, make for a challenging tale of love, life and destiny. Yet another well crafted tale from Master Ishiguro, including a beautiful portrayal of love and marriage.

For a bit of a taster, listen to this audio excerpt. This is definitely a great book for an audio version – I really enjoyed hearing the different voices, so well expressed by David Horovitch.

For another, more extensive review read: http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/mar/04/kazuoishiguro-fiction

Choices – Nine Days by Toni Jordan

nine daysWe are all connected to our past; to our relatives and to choices – sometimes choices and determinations made by someone else.

‘Nine Days’ opens with the voice of Kip as a young boy, dealing with a grieving mother and the family situation which has resulted from his father’s untimely death. Kip is accepting, but seems unfairly dealt with; he is the younger twin sent out to work, while his spoilt, 7-minutes older brother is able to remain at school.

In his ‘day’ we learn much about the Westaway family, whose history unrolls as further chapters unfold. The days that follow deal with other members of Kip’s family and across four different generations, with many questions along the way…

How was his older sister, Connie trapped/ affected by the attitudes of the times? Did the favouritism offered to his twin brother, Frank, lead to a prosperous and happy lifestyle?

For Toni Jordan, this is her third novel; though it differs from her past books. Inspiration began with a photo – shown on the front cover of the book. From this, Jordan has magically woven and interwoven her tales of the Westaway family, each chapter dealing with a defining day in the life of one of the family members.

‘Nine Days’ feels like a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to me. Since the chapters focus on one individual in the extended Westaway family, then jump across time and back again. As a reader you have to join the pieces together to see how they fit. It raises a number of different issues, and makes you wonder how things might have turned out differently with slight changes to choices made by some of the characters. Indeed, some chapters leave you with a sense that more could be told. In many ways, this is a sign of a good book –  it shows the reader is hooked and wants to know more.

Many people have commented favourably on this book – particularly online at GoodReads (a great site to share everything about great reading!). For a longer review, see http://whisperinggums.com/2012/09/09/toni-jordan-nine-days-review/. For an interview with Toni Jordan about writing ‘Nine Days’, see the video below:

# ‘Nine Days’ was a winner recently in the Indie Awards for Best Fiction 2013 – http://www.indies.com.au/BookAwards.aspx