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.