Saturday, 12 September 2020

Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell

 It was announced that Hamnet had won the Women's Prize for Fiction just after I had finished reading it. I haven't read any of the other books on the shortlist, but nonetheless, I'm sure that it's an absolutely worthy winner - it's a marvellous book.

I actually bought the book a month or so ago, but it took a while before I could bring myself to read it. Why so? Well, Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play by quite a margin. I taught it for A-level many times, and I've seen several productions, so I know it well. (The best was with Kenneth Branagh as the prince many years ago at Stratford; he managed to speak the verse as if it was the natural language of speech, while at the same time losing none of the poetry - quite brilliant.) There are many lines in it that I love, but there's something about the overall tone of it that really moves me: elegiac, desperately sad.

When I was teaching Shakespeare, I had some notes that I'd written about Shakespeare's life and times which I used to give out as an introduction: it seemed to me that students needed to know where Shakespeare was coming from - literally and metaphorically - in order to be able to understand the verse. So I knew about his life: I knew about Hamnet, his son. 

Then, a few years ago, I was asked to write a book about his life and times for schoolchildren, so I read up on it again. I was amazed at how few actual facts are known about him - even the generally accepted dates given for his life and death are, to an extent, guesswork. But the death of his son at the age of eleven is known, though not the cause of his death. And I noticed, as who could not, that his death was followed not long afterwards by the play with the very similar name; spelling was notoriously a matter of choice, and the similarity was too close to be missed - though the play is based on an old story of a Danish prince with a similar name again, Amleth.

So - I knew that Hamnet was going to be about the death of Shakespeare's son. I knew it was going to hurt, and it does. But the way that Maggie O'Farrell tells the story is really so clever, and so beautifully done, that it's worth the pain of reading about the death of a child.

At the centre, it's about the strange marriage of Shakespeare and his wife, normally known to us as Anne Hathaway, though here called Agnes - perhaps to make us see her afresh. Again, little is known about Anne or about their marriage: mainly that she was several years older than him; that they spent much of their married life apart, he in London and she in Stratford; that they had three children, Susannah and the twins, Hamnet and Judith; and that in his will he left her his 'second-best bed', which has occasioned some discussion.

So Maggie O'Farrell has a lot of leeway. She uses it to create in Agnes a rich, complex character: an unusual woman with a knowledge of medicinal herbs and a mysterious ability to see the future. She and Will - who is never actually named in the book - are very much in love. But she knows, though it hurts her deeply, that his destiny is in London, not in Stratford.

We meet Hamnet straight away. Initially, it is his sister, Judith, who is ill. But with our foreknowledge, we can see that what ails her is the plague, and we know that Hamnet is the one who dies - so even as we warm to this kind and gentle boy, we know that he doesn't have long left. He searches for someone to help his sister, but can't find his mother - the only person around is his abusive grandfather.

The focus then switches to Agnes, who is out gathering herbs. We learn through flashbacks the story of her relationship with Will, touching down from time to time with Hamnet and Judith back in Stratford. It's heartbreaking and rivetting. When Hamnet dies, and Will returns, she cannot believe it when he tells her he will return almost straight away to London: she is understandably furious with him. The way that Maggie O'Farrell resolves this, through the medium of the play, Hamlet, is a quite extraordinary piece of writing.

I'll read this book again. It is quite beautiful.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

CUTTING FOR STONE - Abraham Verghese

First of all, an apology: I read this book some weeks ago. I always intend my thoughts down straight away, but what usually happens is that I pick up the next book - and the next - and get involved in that, and so it goes. Then, by the time I get round to a review, I've forgotten the details and can only do a broad-brush review. Still, on we go!

This book is set in Ethiopia. It's big - 533 pages - and it's big also in ambition and sweep. At the centre of it is a family story. In the year 1954, twin boys, Marion and Shiva, are born to a Carmelite nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, in the hospital where she is a nurse, in Addis Ababa. It is a highly unusual birth: firstly, because she is a nun; secondly, because no-one had realised she was pregnant; thirdly, because the father, a brilliant surgeon named Thomas Stone, had absolutely no idea that he had even slept with Sister Mary. He loves her, but he doesn't realise it till he realises he is about to lose her - she doesn't survive the birth. Distraught, he disappears, so the twins are affectively orphans.

However, they are brought up by loving stand-in parents: Hema and Ghosh, both doctors at the hospital. Characterisation is one of the many strong points of the novel: there's a whole cavalcade of beautifully realised characters, eccentric, strong-willed, generous, funny - and these two head the procession.

Not unnaturally, living at a hospital and born of two medical people, the twins also become devoted to medecine. Marion narrates the book, and is a very different character from his brother, who has something other-worldly and mystical about him: Marion is hard-working and practical - though he too has his dreams.

Underlying the family story, though, there are two other preoccupations. One is medecine. Born and brought up in Ethiopia of Indian parents, Abraham Verghese is an eminent American physician, and he writes at considerable length in this book about surgical procedures and new ideas in treatments. I must admit I skimmed some of these - but he writes beautifully about them, and I am lost in admiration for someone who can at the same time have eminent careers as both a devoted physician and a brilliant writer.

The other story he tells is about Ethiopia. Many years ago I flew with Ethiopian Airlines to Tanzania, changing planes in Addis, and I remember looking at the flight attendants and thinking what stunningly beautiful people they were. I know Ethiopia produces outstanding long-distance runners, and I've wondered sometimes why Rastafarians revere Haile Selassie, the former president of Ethiopia - but that, until recently, was pretty much the sum of my knowledge about it. This book told me a great deal more, and by one of those serendipitous moments, there was a recent documentary on BBC4 which added to the picture.

Altogether, a tremendous, absorbing read, with the added extra that it took me to places of which I knew very little. 

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Sir Ken Robinson: 1950-2020

I was very sad to hear yesterday that Ken Robinson has died at the age of 70. He was an author, speaker, and international advisor on education, and his particular interest was creativity, and ways in which schools should be able to foster it. He was against standardised testing and various other straitjackets into which successive governments have put education: he was for maximising the huge potential of children.

I was lucky enough to hear him speak over twenty years ago. He was inspirational - a brilliant man and a brilliant speaker. He had that gift of speaking to a whole room as if he was just chatting to a group of friends; he was warm, witty, funny, original and immensely knowledgeable. I am so sorry he's gone.

The link is to a Ted talk he gave in 2006, which has been seen nearly 20 million times - it's the most watched Ted talk ever. If you watch it, you'll see why.


Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Chanel's Riviera, by Anne de Courcy

After finishing Overstory, I felt I wanted to read something that was easier, less emotionally demanding. Non-fiction, I thought. And right on cue, up popped an offer for history books for 99p. This one appealed; I remembered seeing an intriguing film about Chanel some years ago; also, this book covers an era that's interested me for quite some time - in fact, I've written two novels set in Europe during the war years. (Don't go looking: neither has so far been published, though I live in hope. Well, you have to, don't you?) I think somewhere else on this blog I've written about Anne Sebba's Les Parisiennes, which deals with the topic of the very different ways in which French women respnded to the exigencies of war. Chanel, I knew, was one of those who found herself a handsome and very useful German lover - no mean feat as she was almost sixty.

The first part of Anne de Courcy's book  deals with the Riviera in the thirties, and it is a delicious look through the keyhole at the lives of the incredibly rich and cosmoplitan group of people who made the south of France their playground and luxurious retreat at this time. Chanel herself had a palatial house built, with no expense spared, where she entertained large house parties; guests and neighbours included Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev, Edith Wharton - and later the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (who do NOT come across well). So, you know, just the kinds of people you and I have to tea all the time.

Chanel came from a childhood of extreme poverty. When she was twelve, her mother died, and her father abandonned her, leaving her in the care of nuns in a convent, where she was pretty much confined for seven years. (Apparently she later gave differing accounts of her early years, but this much seems to be undisputed.) She then, by virtue of becoming the lover of various wealthy men, opened a milliner's shop, which later became a fashion house; but her main fortune came from the famous perfume, Chanel No. 5 - though it continued to rankle with her for many years that she ad given away too large a percentage to the developers of her perfume, the Wertheimers. She must have been very, very rich: she bought houses for her brothers and supported various people, quite apart from spending money on herself. She had a large collection of jewellery - ropes of pearls of all different sizes: diamond cuffs and bracelets, ruby thises and emerald and sapphire thats. She had, naturally, a large staff, and an apartment in Paris: when she gave that up, she made do with a small flat above her atelier and an apartment at the Ritz.

She was very loyal to her friends, and was seldom without a lover or two. She was capable of great generosity, but also of casual cruelty: she closed her fashion house at the beginning of the war (having paid her staff low wages) without notice, thus depriving her workers of an income just at a time when they would have most needed it. She was anti semitic in general terms, yet she could go out on a limb to try to rescue Jewish friends who had been arrested by the Nazis - by calling on her German lover and associates.

All of this comes in the second part of the book, which deals with the German occupation of France. The contrast is great. The wealthy elite seem to have been so preoccupied with living their gilded lives that most of them simply did not notice what was happening in other parts of Europe - or if they did, they simply shrugged their shoulders, downed another glass of champagne, and assumed that none of it could possibly affect them. The Duke of Windsor, after various people had gone to a lot of trouble to organise a ship to take him to England and safety, refused to come unless the royal family issued a personal invitation, and a promise that he would be fiven all kinds of special attentions. This wasn't forthcoming, so he refused to go - eventually condescending to agree to be driven though Spain to Portugal, with, of course, vast amounts of luggage - while the roads of France were choked with refugees who had fled with only what they could carry.

Anne de Courcy reveals how life was under the occupation for a range of individuals: how things became harder and harder as the Germans commandeered most of the food and imposed increasingly cruel restrictions. She also makes it clear that the appalling treatment of the Jews in the unoccupied zone was largely undertaken by French, not German politicians and police: and she deals with the difficult period after the war, when collaborators were punished - pointing out that almost everyone, to some degree or another, had to collaborate in order to live.

It's very much a book of two halves, both of which are fascinating.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

I hardly know where to start with this book, which I've just finished. It is quite extraordinary.

It's about trees. It's a novel, but it covers some of the same ground as non-fiction books such as The Hidden Lives of Trees and Wilding (see review of the latter here): namely, recent research has shown that trees are far more conscious beings than we ever dreamed of: theat they communicate; that they defend themselves, that they are hosts to vast numbers of other organisms; that even in death, if they are allowed to lie where they fall, they will host more life - not just regrowth, but quantities of animals and insects and other froms of plant life. So when you knock down an ancient woodland (supporters of HS2 please note), you are destroying a whole eco-system which has been developing for hundreds of years - and which will take hundreds of years to replicate. Planting new trees doesn't do the job, though it's better than nothing. And that's not to mention what trees do in terms of soaking up carbon dioxide.

Like Wilding, Overstory makes you adjust the way you see life on our planet and our place within that incredibly complex network of systems. For so long, we have seen ourselves as separate and superior to nature. We've plundered the earth for what we want, and while we didn't want too much, that was okay. But now, we want more and more, and we take more and more, and the planet can't cope. We have to see and understand this if we want life to continue to exist on our beautiful, once-in-a-universe planet - or at least, if we want human life to continue. We are part of nature; we aren't separate. If we destroy forests, we destroy our own future.

Trees at Tyntesfield, in Somerset, UK

So how do you tell that story in a novel? Well, this is how Richard Powers does it. The book is set in America. It features nine individuals, beginning with a fairly brief history of each of their lives. (The book is very long, so he has plenty of time.) He is very good at this. Each character is very real, very complex; each is smart in different ways. So for instance, the first story concerns a family descended from a Norwegian immigrant who moves out west, bringing with him some seeds from an American chestnut tree. Most of them don't survive, but one does, and grows into a vast and beautiful specimen which exercises a strange fascination over the Hoel family. Partly this is because a disease has killed off most of these trees: the Hoel tree has so far survived because it is so far west - but the disease spreads inexorably, as these diseases do.

Each year one Hoel after another takes a photograph of the tree. Eventually, the last descendant, Nick, creates art installations around the tree, and becomes more and more passionate about trees. Eventually, he meets up with the other eight, who by very different paths have also become desperately concerned about the way big business is destroying woodlands that existed long before white people colonised America: in the end, they take drastic measures which have a huge effect on all of their lives.

I can't pretend I understood everything in the book. In particular, there is a character called Neelay who creates virtual reality games. I have never played computer games, so I don't understand the simplest things about them - and this story line becomes very complex indeed.

But even so, I found it absolutely compelling. Here is a sample of the writing. The character is Patricia Westerford, a scientist and academic who lives in a hut in a forest.

The trees are busy tonight, fixing carbon in their dark phase. All will be in flower before long: huckleberry and currant, showy milkweed, tall Oregon grape, yarrow and checkermallow. She marvels again at how the planet's supreme intelligence could discover calculus and the universal laws of gravitation before anyone knew what a flower was for

The book is an astonishing achievement. Heart-breaking and inspirational in equal measure.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

The Water's Daughter, by Michelle Lovric

Michelle Lovric writes fiction for adults and children: a common theme of all her novels is a Venetian setting, and it's very clear from a reading of any of her books that she knows Venice very well, and loves it very much - I think it could certainly be argued that Venice is absolutely at the heart of her writing. She also writes non-fiction; most recently she collaborated with Gemma Dowler on a book about her mudered sister, Millie Dowling, which topped the Amazon and Times bestseller charts. She's also compiled numerous anthologies.

(Image taken from Michelle Lovic's website.)

This book, which is for children, follows on from several others set 
in the past, and in a parallel Venice . Geographically it's remarkably similar to the city we know today, but it also features a whole troupe of magical creatures. I was particularly delighted to meet the mermaids again: charming, beautiful, but very down-to-earth (!) creatures who live underneath the city and are distinctly foul-mouthed, owing to the fact that they learned their language from pirates. But new to this book is a whole palazzo full of magical creatures who have been transported (by mistake) from Arabia - including a beautiful and utterly amoral djinniya, who has great powers - which, fortunately for Venice, she is not very competent at handling. 

Its human heroine is 12 year old Aurelia Bon, the child of appalling parents who at the beginning of the book are planning to force her to marry the unpleasant son of an unpleasant family; her only other option is to be immured in a nunnery. Aurelia is not the kind of girl to put up with this sort of treatment - she has an extraordinary gift (when she touches a building, her fingers sense its history) and with this, and with a naturally strong personality, comes a firm sense of her own importance. She runs away, and encounters all sorts of dangers but also all manner of wonders. 

She has to battle against all sorts of enemies: a jealous historian who envies her ability to pull the crowds, and has designs on her magical fingers; her ghastly suitor and his family; the very creepy priest in charge of the nunnery; a bunch of pirates (who have lots of saving graces); a group of venal politicians/businessmen whose aim is to such Venice dry of her wealth; and the djinniya. The tussle between the latter and Aurelia is positively epic: they're both powerful, both very selfish, and both actually rather likeable - more so as the book goes on and they have to face up to some uncomfortable truths about themselves.

The book is a glorious flight of imagination, with excitement, humour and glamour in shed loads. I would put it at the upper end of middle-grade - particularly near the beginning, there are some quite scary bits, which might be a bit challenging for younger children - but for the right reader, it offers a gorgeously rich reading experience. And there are the other Venetian children's novels to move on to - it's not essential to read them in sequence.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

In honour of National Meadows Day!

We have experimented this year with a mini-meadow in our front garden, and it’s giving us - and, I hope, lots of insects - a great deal of pleasure. So, as it’s National Meadow Day, I thought I would share a few pictures!