20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Maggie O'Farrell, Publisher, Setting, Tinder Press

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 372 pages; 2020.

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, is one of those books you will have seen everywhere if you haven’t already read it yourself. It won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted — amongst many other awards and accolades — for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

As the title may suggest, it’s a fictionalised story about William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (a name that in the 16th century was regularly switched out with Hamlet), who died unexpectedly, aged 11, plunging his father (and family) into grief. (Though history has not recorded the cause of death, it’s widely believed to be the Bubonic Plague, which is what causes him to die in this novel.)

Initially, I found Hamnet completely gripping — the opening chapter is a very fine piece of writing, indeed, alive with rich descriptions, brilliant characterisations and a heart-thumping sense of urgency — but by the mid-way point my interest began to wane, and I really struggled to finish it.

No doubt you have probably read loads of positive reviews online, so let me briefly outline what I liked and didn’t like about this book.

Here’s what I liked about the story

The dual storylines: The novel is divided into two separate storylines, one of which recounts what happens when Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, falls ill from the Plague, and the second of which goes back in time to chart the romance between a young William “John” Shakespeare and the mysterious woman, Agnes, who would later become his wife. These two narrative threads are told in alternate chapters, which helps build suspense because just when you get to an exciting point in one storyline, it switches to another.

The characters: These are all richly drawn, from Shakespeare’s cruel, drunken father, to Agnes’ cruel, pessimistic stepmother Joan — and everyone in between. Perhaps the best-drawn character is Agnes herself. Much of the story is told through her eyes, so we get a real feel for her innermost thoughts, her undying love for her husband and the ways in which she’s viewed as an outsider by society at the time, purely because she’s an unconventional woman, very much in touch with nature, folklore and her own emotions.

The vivid descriptions: Despite some writerly quirks that annoyed me (see below), the prose is lavish and opulent, a style that lends itself well to historical fiction when scene-setting and period detail is so important. Sometimes O’Farrell can arrest your attention with a single beautiful line — “The hedgerows are constellations, studded with fire-red hips” — or an entire paragraph:

Balanced on the tops of the houses was a sky scattered with jewels, pierced with silver holes. He had whispered into her ear names and stories, his finger outstretched, pulling shapes and people and animals and families out of the stars.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the story

The present tense: I understand that present tense creates urgency and it’s quite unusual to be employed in historical fiction, but I found it very wearing to read more than 300 pages of it! The opening chapter, when Hamnet is desperate to get help for his ill sister, is riveting because of the present tense, but do we really need to read a whole novel as if the action is happening right now? It’s exhausting.

The rule of three: O’Farrell uses a prose pattern that once seen cannot be unseen. She has a penchant to compose sentences that employ three adjectives or three clauses to help prove a point and, I suspect, to make her writing feel more “rich” and “abundant”. But when every page is dotted with sentences structured in this way it becomes kind of annoying. Here is a couple of examples:

The smell, the sight, the colour took her back to a bed soaked red and a room of carnage, of violence, of appalling crimson.

And:

The hawking, honey-producing, ale-trading priest will marry them early the next day, in a ceremony arranged quickly, furtively, secretively.

Plot implausibility:  This is a tough one to write about because I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know, but basically, O’Farrell employs a readerly “trick” that is implausible. After devoting 70-plus pages to the prospect of young Judith dying from the plague, she survives, but at the very last minute, Hamnet dies instead. There’s also an entire chapter about how the flea, responsible for Judith’s illness, travels from Venice to London that just felt like it had been lifted from a fairytale and felt out of keeping with the rest of the novel.

My conclusion

I guess the best way I can sum up my feelings for Hamnet is ambivalence. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. I admired the concept of it but had issues with some of the delivery.

I felt a bit like this when I read O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, so am beginning to wonder whether she just isn’t the writer for me. Either that or I am reading her books at the “wrong” time or I am reading the “wrong” books by her.

I haven’t given up though — I’m now eying off her memoir, which has been sitting in my TBR for a few months and which would qualify as another #20booksofsummer read.

This is my 1st book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received this book as a Christmas gift from my friend Armen in London.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jill Dawson, literary fiction, London

‘The Language of Birds’ by Jill Dawson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Sceptre; 272 pages; 2019.

Giving voice to the victim of a horrendous crime is the central purpose of Jill Dawson’s excellent novel The Language of Birds.

The story is based on the events of the real-life Lord Lucan murder mystery in which British peer  (and professional gambler) Richard John Bingham disappeared on 8 November 1974, never to be seen again. He was suspected of murdering the nanny of his children and severely injuring his estranged wife in their Belgravia home.

Dawson’s fictionalised account reveals what happens from the murdered nanny’s perspective. It’s an effective — and compelling — literary device, putting a human face on a woman long forgotten by a culture obsessed with what actually happened to Lord Lucan, who was declared officially dead in 2016.

But this is NOT a crime novel.

A new life in London

In The Language of Birds, the nanny is given a different name — Amanda ‘Mandy’ River — but her impoverished background, including having two secret children out of wedlock in rural Norfolk, remain pretty much the same. She’s a vivacious, warm, friendly and attractive 26-year-old keen to escape the claustrophobic control of her mother, who has raised Mandy’s son, Peter, as her own.

She moves to London, encouraged by her friend Rosemary who is working there as a trained nanny, and within 24 hours is in the employ of Lady Katharine Morven, looking after infant Pamela and 10-year-old James. But the household is in disarray. Lady Morven spends most of her time in bed, Pammie never stops crying and James is watchful and sickly looking.

There’s a bitter custody battle being played out, and Lord Dickie Morven, who no longer lives with the family, is having the property and his estranged wife’s movements being watched by a series of private detectives.

Both Morvens befriend Mandy, who isn’t quite sure whose side she should take. Lady Morven claims her husband is violent; Lord Morven says his wife is unstable and an unfit mother.

Two narrative threads

The story follows Mandy’s new life in London — she falls in love with a black man she meets in the local pub, hangs out with Rosemary, gets to know the debonair Dickie — and contrasts this with her previous troubled life, which included a stint in a psychiatric hospital. This, it turns out, is where she met Rosemary, who was also a patient because she could hear voices and believed she could see the future and commune with birds (hence the title of the book).

It is structured around two narrative threads: Mandy’s story told in the third person and Rosemary’s told in the first person. This means that when Mandy meets her unfortunate end, Rosemary can take up the baton, leading us through the inquest that follows and ensuring Mandy’s life is not forgotten in the (media) obsession surrounding the missing earl.

I really loved this novel. Mandy is wonderfully realised. She’s a brilliant creation, a woman who wants to control her own destiny (and sexuality) despite society putting rules and barriers in the way. And both Morvens, posh, aristocratic and deeply troubled, are also well drawn — and from what I know of the real Lord Lucan mystery rooted in reality.

Perhaps what makes The Language of Birds really work is the tension and pacing. It reads like a thriller but has all the nuance of a domestic novel about flawed people making poor decisions that have long-lasting and unforeseen repercussions.

The ending is especially powerful. It achieves Dawson’s aim because it presents a fresh perspective on a terrible crime: it gives the nanny her rightful place in history, not as a murder statistic but as a young woman, full of dreams and a zest for life, who had her time on earth cut so cruelly short. This was my first Jill Dawson novel; it won’t be my last.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Aiding and Abetting’ by Murial Spark: Suspenseful black comedy in which a Paris-based psychiatrist takes on two new patients, both of whom claim to be Lord Lucan. But which one is the real one?

‘The Butterfly Man’ by Heather Rose: Lord Lucan reinvents himself as a Scotsman now living a quiet life in rural Tasmania. But when he is diagnosed with a brain tumour his illness makes it increasingly difficult to keep his murderous past a secret.

‘The Dead Eight’ by Carlo Gébler: This brilliantly compelling novel is told from the perspective of a prostitute, long forgotten by history, who was murdered in rural Ireland in 1940. It is based on the true story of Harry Gleeson who was framed for the woman’s murder and hanged at Mountjoy prison for the crime.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Kamila Shamsie, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is an astute, highly readable and compelling novel about the ways in which familial and patriotic loyalties can be tested when love and politics collide.

Set in modern-day Britain, it’s the first novel I’ve read that has fleshed out what makes young Muslim men become radicalised and join ISIS. It also asks important questions about nationality, citizenship and whether terrorists can ever be reformed after they have fought abroad to create a (failed) Caliphate.

Structured around three siblings

The story is framed around three siblings of Pakistani heritage — twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, and their older sister Isma, who raised them when they became orphaned. Their father, whom they have never known, was a jihadist, famously said to have died en-route to being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.

Each sibling’s story is told in a separate section so that we come to understand their individual motivations, dreams and fears.

Two additional characters — Karamat Lone, the UK’s outspoken Home Secretary, who is also of Pakistani heritage and a Muslim, and his spoilt young adult son, Eamonn, who becomes sexually involved with Aneeka — also get their own sections.

Airport interrogation

When the book opens we are thrust into the world of an airport interrogation. Isma, finally free of her duty to raise her younger twin siblings, is heading to the US to commence a PhD programme in sociology. She already knows she’s on a watchlist, thanks to her father’s history, so she has been careful not to pack anything that may be interpreted the wrong way, so no Quoran and no family photographs, but the hostility and the sense of injustice is palpable throughout the questioning.

‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

This sets the scene for the rest of the story, which shows, often in painstaking detail, how British-born Muslims are often regarded — by the media, by authorities, by politicians and by members of the public — as being terrorists or of having terrorist sympathies, and how they must negotiate this world of suspicion, either by lying low or playing along.

Shamsie is very good at highlighting how the public mood, often set by posturing politicians, gives rise to a climate of fear. Lone, the Home Secretary, is the son of immigrants but is, himself, anti-immigrant. On TV he speaks tough about British values and plots to extend his own powers so that he can revoke British citizenship so that it applies to British-born single passport holders only. It is his actions and his words that help fan the paranoia surrounding anyone of the Islamic faith living in Britain.

But the story really hinges on Parvais, the twin brother, who pursues the idea that his father was a hero he’d like to emulate. More by accident than design, he falls in with what we might term “the wrong crowd” and finds himself heading to Syria to join the media arm of ISIS. He tells his twin sister he’s going to Turkey for a holiday so that his “disappearance” doesn’t arouse suspicion. Of course, it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that everyone, including his two sisters, knows what he has done — after he has done it.

Based on a Greek myth

What is perhaps less obvious is the individual reactions to Parvais’ decision. Even Parvais’ own reaction, once the realisation of what he has done sinks in, demonstrates that being young and idealistic is no match for reality and taking responsibility for your actions.

Many reviews of Home Fire make much of the fact that the story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. If you know that myth, the ending probably won’t surprise you, but I’m woefully uneducated in this regard and found the conclusion quite shocking and profound.

This is a smart, thought-provoking and fearless novel. It was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Simon & Schuster, Sweden, TBR40, Tom Rob Smith

‘The Farm’ by Tom Rob Smith

Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster UK; 384 pages; 2015.

Looking for something easy to read on a recent weekend jaunt to Rome, I extracted Tim Rob Smith’s The Farm from my electronic TBR. A strange and twisted story about madness, lies, secrets and gaslighting, it kept me entertained for the duration of my trip — but I had very mixed feelings about it.

A parental tug-of-war

The tale centres around Daniel, a young man living in London, who gets drawn into a dispute between his parents who now live on a remote farm in Sweden having retired from their business (a garden nursery) a few years ago.

One morning Daniel’s father, Chris, calls him to say that his mother has had a psychotic breakdown and has fled the hospital where she had been committed. He’s warned that his mother is dangerously unwell and potentially violent.

Moments later Daniel receives a phone call from his mother, Tilde, saying that everything he’s been told by his father is a lie and she has the evidence to prove it. “I’m about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow,” she says.

From thereon in, the narrative is structured around Tilde’s story of what happened to her. She sits in Daniel’s kitchen (and later a hotel room) and tells her story in strict chronological order, interrupted only occasionally by Daniel who wants to clarify things (or jump to conclusions), before a dramatic shift about 100 pages from the end which jumps ahead to reveal that Tilde is now in a psychiatric unit in London.

Who to believe?

What makes The Farm so compelling to read is not quite knowing who to believe: is Tilde really psychotic or is her tale of strange goings on in the local community, presided over by a creepy, manipulative neighbour, Håken, really true? Has she been gaslighted into believing that the crimes to which she alludes are just figments of her imagination? And is the disappearance of Håken’s adopted 16-year-old daughter, the beautiful Mia from Angola, connected to a pedophile ring (or something similar)?

What didn’t quite work for me is never fully knowing Chris’s side of the story. He is largely seen through Tilde’s eyes so we can never be entirely sure if what she’s saying about him is reliable.

Daniel’s own investigation — he heads to Sweden on a solo mission to uncover evidence for himself — seems a bit rushed and he never seems to quite ask the questions I wanted him to ask. This, in turn, made me wonder if his account was unreliable, too?

And the ending itself felt abrupt — and hugely disappointing. I don’t expect everything I read in novels to be neatly tied up at the end, but this left open too many dangling threads for my liking. So while I largely enjoyed the journey I was left disappointed with the destination.

Nevertheless, The Farm is an entertaining, suspenseful (but slow-paced) read. It’s just a pity that what started out as a truly intriguing premise for a story got waylaid somewhere along the line.

This is my 18th book for #TBR40. According to my Amazon account, I purchased this book on 14 March 2015 for £2.85, but I have no idea what prompted me to buy it. Was it someone else’s review, perhaps?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Maclehose Press, Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing, Picador, Publisher, Roland Schimmelpfennig, Saqi Books, Setting, UK, USA

3 novellas by Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing and Roland Schimmelpfennig

I do love a good novella.

Wikipedia defines these books as “somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words”, but I generally think anything under 150 pages qualifies. Alternatively, anything I can read in around two hours is a novella to me.

Here are three excellent novellas I’ve read recently, all of which I highly recommend.

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi

Fiction – paperback; Saqi Books; 128 pages; 2019. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

First published in Nawal El Saadawi’s native Egypt in 1960, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a fictionalised account of growing up female in a restrictive culture where women are second-class citizens and often denied a chance of an education.

In this first-person story, our narrator defies tradition — and her family’s claustrophobic expectations that she’ll marry and produce children — to go to medical school. Here, in the autopsy room, she dissects a male body — her first encounter with a naked man — and “in the course of it men lost their dread power and illusory greatness in my eyes”.

Later, she forgoes her independence to marry a man, but that turns sour when he tries to control her at home. She wastes no time in divorcing him — a huge no-no in Egyptian society — wondering if she will ever find a partner who respects her as a person and not as a “chattel” to own and objectify. The ending, I’m happy to say, is a satisfying one.

This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. It has proved an excellent introduction to this author’s work, which has just been reissued by Saqi Books as part of a new series of classic work by writers from the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 176 pages; 2018.

I ate up Olivia Laing’s Crudo in an afternoon. It is an amazing little book about the power of now — or, more specifically, the summer of 2017 — when the main character, Kathy, turns 40 and falls in love but is scared of committing herself to the one man. She goes ahead with the wedding regardless.

It is all stream-of-consciousness, written in a fast-paced, fragmentary style, but riveting and so akin to my own line of thinking about the modern world — Brexit, Trump’s America, politics, social justice and climate change et al —  that it almost feels as if it fell out of my own head.

Supposedly based on the work of Kathy Acker, whom I had to look up on Wikipedia (her entry is a fascinating read in its own right), it took me on a short but jam-packed journey about art and love and life and everything in between. A wow of a book that I hope to read again sometime soon.

‘One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’ by Roland Schimmelpfennig

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 240 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

This German novella has been reviewed favourably by Annabel at Annabookbel and Susan at A Life in Books, but I think I probably saw it first at Winstonsdad’s Blog.

It’s a highly original story that follows a diverse group of disparate characters living in Poland and Germany who are all united by one thing: they have spied the same rare wild wolf in the snow en-route to Berlin.

Written by a German playwright, the book is intensely cinematic and told in a fragmentary style using sparse prose and small vignettes which provide glimpses into the lives of those who people it, including two young people on the run, a Polish construction worker and his pregnant girlfriend, a small business owner who runs a kiosk with his wife, and a woman intent on burning her mother’s diaries.

It’s an absorbing, if somewhat elusive, read, one that requires a bit of focus to keep track of who’s who as the narrative twists and loops around itself, a bit like the wandering wolf at the heart of the tale. But on the whole, this is a fascinating portrait of modern Berlin and its diverse population after unification.

Have you read any of these books? Do you like novellas? Do you have any favourites you can recommend?