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.

House of Names by Colm Tóibín | The re-telling of a Greek tragedy

House of Names by Colm Tóibín is the retelling of a Greek tragedy so it’s not surprising that vengeance, betrayal and passion are central themes. Arguably the real themes, however, are maternal anger and exile.

The mother in question is Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon. The root of her anger is the murder at Agamemnon’s command of their eldest daughter Iphigenia. This happens when Agamemnon tricks Iphigenia into thinking that she is to marry the warrior Achilles. However, when the wedding party arrives at Agamnenon’s camp, Iphigenia is instead sacrificed to the gods.

Iphigenia’s young brother, Orteses witnesses the killing. But it is  Clytemnestra who sets out for revenge securing assistance from a Rasputin-like former prisoner called Aegisthus.

Writing about Clytemnestra is not the first time that Tóibín has addressed maternal anger. The theme is present in The Testament of Mary and also — albeit in very different circumstances — in Nora Webster.

Exile in House of Names

Aegisthus goes behind Clytemnestra’s back and arranges the kidnapping of Orteses. This leads to a long period of exile for the young boy. At first, he is a prisoner with a group of other boys. He befriends a boy called Leander and, together with another boy, escapes. The next stage of his exile is the journey home. The boys’ odyssey is long and dangerous with violent encounters and losses along the way. At times, I thought this section of the book too long. But perhaps that is the point of exile! By the time they finally arrive, Orteses has left childhood behind.


Meanwhile, all this time, Agamemnon’s second daughter Electra has lived with Clytemnestra. A silent witness to intrigue and murder, Electra talks mostly to the ghosts of her father and sister while she waits for Orteses to return. She watches the comings and goings of her mother and Aegisthus and observes the shifting allegiances of their guards. She is the least noticed character but the one who perhaps sees and understands most.

In a sense all of the characters are like masked actors in Greek tragedy. There is a shadowy quality to them but their motivations touch on universal themes so they draw you into the story and linger in memory long after you close the book.

[Disclosure: Penguin provided an advance review copy of House of Names via Netgalley]

The Good People by Hannah Kent | Review

The Good People by Hannah Kent is an engrossing read.

Set in County Kerry, Ireland in the 1820s it’s a richly imagined story about folk beliefs. This is a very visual, sensory and atmospheric novel. Kent describes water pooled outside a doorstep  as “tight with ice”, robins “bloodsmocked against the sky”.

The story centres on three women brought together by a disabled child.

When her husband Martin drops dead at a crossroads, Nóra Leahy is left alone with their grandson Micheál.

The son of her only daughter, Johanna, Micheál was born a healthy infant. But after Johanna’s death, he became sickly and, by the  age of 4, could no longer speak nor walk.

When Johanna’s husband leaves Micheál with Nóra and Martin, Nóra hides him away because she doesn’t want the neighbours to see his disabilities. Martin seems to have a connection with the child but Nóra sees only the changes in her grandson and she finds it hard to cope with him. So, after Martin’s death, Nóra  hires a maid, Mary Clifford, to help care for the boy. Mary is fourteen and comes from a large family. She is used to caring for young children and is kind and caring to Micheál.

The Good People and Changelings

But soon, stories about Micheál begin to spread and neighbours blame him when things go wrong. Nóra thinks he’s a changeling. She believes the ‘good people’ stole her grandson away and left a disabled child in his place. As she becomes more convinced about this, she grows more distant from the boy.

When neither priest nor doctor can help Micheál, Nóra turns to a a healer. Nance Keogh has ‘the knowledge’ to cure ailments and understands the ‘good people’ so Nóra believes that Nance can restore her grandson.

As Nóra, Nance and Mary attempt help Micheál, their efforts lead to danger and elements of the attempted cures may upset some readers. But, like Hannah Kent’s earlier work, Burial Rites, The Good People is a well-researched and absorbing read that draws you in from the first sentence and hold you till the last. I loved it.

[Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of The Good People via Netgalley]