Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell reviewed by Izzy Reads

Two things drew me to Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. First, O’Farrell herself whose earlier fiction and non-fiction stand out in my mind as some of the most enjoyable reads that I have had since I started this blog a few years ago. (See The Hand that First Held Mine, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and I am, I am, I am). 

The second thing is Hamnet’s link to Shakespeare. The story is inspired by Shakespeare’s son who died of plague while still a teenager.

 The older that I get, and the more performances of Shakespeare plays that I see, the more I have come to realise that I like them best when they are performed outdoors without fancy costumes or famous actors but with a cast that brings the universal themes to life so that you scarcely notice  unfamiliar language and instead enjoy the pace, the story, the play on words, the comedy, confusion and slapstick, the use of verse when tragedy looms, the turn on a comma.

There’s a timelessness to these outdoor performances — a sense of connection to audiences that have gone before — a sheer pleasure in witnessing a play performed outdoors on a sunny hillside on a summer evening. And, for me, Maggie O’Farrell captures much of this, creating an atmospheric story in a world closely linked to nature where you can lose yourself for a while and enjoy those universal connections.

While it’s Hamnet that features in the title, it’s really his mother — Agnes — who is the main character. 

Like her mother before her, Agnes is a herbalist who understands how to use plants like valerian, comfrey, chamomile, sage, thyme and lavender to cure or to calm when cure is not possible. Married to Shakespeare, she has three children — a daughter, Susanna, and twins — Judith and Hamnet. 

The twins, like many characters in Shakespeare’s comedies occasionally exchange identities to play tricks on their family but it is tragedy rather than comedy that darkens their door when plague arrives. 

If you are not a fan of Shakespeare, don’t let that put you off Hamnet. You don’t need to know anything about the plays or indeed the man himself to appreciate this novel. It’s just that if you know a little, it may add to your enjoyment. I bought the Kindle edition.

Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent – unexpected twists and a satisfying ending

Our Little Cruelties is a character-driven novel about three brothers — Will, Brian and Luke Drumm — and the rivalries of their family life.

The story begins at a funeral. One of the brothers is dead but we don’t find out which one until the end of the novel.

Timelines move back and forth from the brothers’ childhood through into their adult lives. The story unfolds slowly, switching between individual points of view and revealing key events that help us understand how each brother became the man he is.

Different but alike, each life story is both influenced by and impacts the brothers’ wider family, work and social relationships. Individual actions have consequences in this novel, often lasting and terrible.

As in her earlier novels, Unravelling Oliver and Skin Deep, Liz Nugent manages to make us feel sympathy for unlikeable characters in a tightly-woven story with unexpected twists, nicely wrapped up in a satisfying ending.

[Disclosure: Review copy from the publisher, Penguin received via Netgalley.]

Strangers by C.L. Taylor – a thriller with loneliness at its heart

The three main characters in CL Taylor’s Strangers have led entirely separate lives up to the moment when fate brings them together at a death scene in a Bristol shopping centre.

Ursula, a courier and occasional shoplifter, is a lonely, but sympathetic character, who has lost the lover of her life Nathan. Despite her light-fingered ways, which see her evicted by her flatmates, there is a kindness in Ursula which comes out strongly at certain points in Strangers and makes her more likeable than she perhaps appears at first sight. She’s impulsive, with a tendency to land herself in sticky situations that sometimes force her to make bad decisions. One such situation is, involves her decision to move in with a creepy landlord who actually gave me nightmares at one point when reading this novel

Gareth, a security guard in the shopping centre and a carer for his elderly mother also plays a key role Strangers, part of the significance of which only emerges towards the end of the novel.

Meanwhile the third character, Alice, recently back on the dating scene, is being stalked in a threatening way that seems to have something to do with her new boyfriend. But who is the stalker and why are they targeting Alice?

What I liked about Strangers is that the characters are individually strong and interesting. I also liked the short chapters, which make Strangers easy to pick up and put down again without losing the thread of the story.

Previously on this blog, I reviewed another CL Taylor novel, The Accident – a psychological thriller about an emotionally unstable mother determined to find out why her daughter deliberately stepped in front of a bus. You can find that review here.

Strangers by CL Taylor is published by Avon, a division of Harper Collins.

[Disclosure: I received an advance proof copy].