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.

I am, I am, I am — Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell

This week, thanks to Wicklow and Waterford City and County Libraries, I got my hands on a copy of I am, I am, I am – Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell. Although I have read O’Farrell’s fiction in the past, this is the first of her non-fiction titles I’ve come across.

It’s a tense and thought-provoking account of seventeen near death experiences. What comes through strongly in each episode is O’Farrell’s genuine appreciation of life and its fragility.

Some of her near-death experiences, such as her childhood illnesses are outside of her control. Others, come from foolish or hasty decisions. In some situations, she is aware of the danger she faces in the moment. In others, that awareness comes later as she reflects on the experience.

Each experience is life enhancing in the sense that it strengthens appreciation of life. And, as O’Farrell puts it, often the things in life that don’t go to plan are the most formative in the long run.

Survival is thanks to a combination of luck, circumstance,  personal skills and, occasionally, the intervention of others.

Patterns repeat

However, I was also struck by the similarity in some of the situations she encounters. This made me think about how patterns repeat in life when we make the same kinds of choices that we’ve always made. The older I get, the more I notice this in myself and my friends. So much so,  I wonder sometimes if we are hard-wired not to learn in certain situations. Or, perhaps, as seems to  the case for Maggie O’Farrell, the lure of adventure or freedom outweighs our sense of risk.

Brushes with death

So, over the course of a lifetime, most of us have occasional brushes with death through ill-health, accident, carelessness or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  O’Farrell’s seventeen brushes with death, are a reminder of both of the fragility of life and the rewards of living bravely.

Other titles by Maggie O’Farrell include The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

Readers who like short novels may be drawn to Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. This relatively short and very readable novel is set in Scotland.  The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox delivers plenty of suspense as the story unfolds. Essentially it is a family story — part mystery, part drama  — centered on the related lives of three women: Iris, who owns a vintage clothing shop and is involved in a relationship with a married man; Kitty, her grandmother, who is suffering from Alzheimers and living in a care home; and Esme, the great aunt that Iris had never heard of until she gets a call from an asylum where Esme has been an inmate for more than 60 years.

Family secrets spill in a thoughtful and sensitive cleverly woven story which also explores some deeper themes such as how identity is transferred across generations. “We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own.”

Maggie O’Farrell has a gift for creating believable, human characters and drawing the reader into their stories. In my opinion, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is one of her best novels to date.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell was first published in 2006. eBook published by Headline Publishing, 2009. eISBN 9780755372263.