Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

To some extent I’ve been putting off writing about Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. What do you say that the hype surrounding the book hasn’t already said? When if it hasn’t quite won every prize going, it’s certainly been shortlisted for it?

In truth, even though I’d asked my partner to buy me the book for my birthday in December, I’d put off reading it until this month unsure, having lost one of my own twins, how well I’d cope with a novel about another woman losing one of hers, even after six years.

In the end, I needn’t have worried about this. Although Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is anchored by the death of Shakespeare’s son, exploring the family’s grief in the aftermath of Hamnet’s death, this is a novel about life, not death. Maggie O’Farrell gives life and character to the shadowy family that history has left behind in Stratford. For once, William Shakespeare isn’t named, the Latin’ tutor, the glovemaker’s son, he is the distant figure and the myth is woven instead around his family. Calling it a domestic drama doesn’t do it justice, but it’s undeniable that in Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell’s prose elevates the forgotten incidents of the lives of Elizabethan women to poetry, writing lovingly and with heart about birthing and raising children, about carving out your own destiny in a society which at best will only ever see you as second class.  

It’s a beautiful novel, but as a portrait of a family’s shifting relationships following a bereavement, and a couple struggling to relate to each other in the wake of it, it’s completely breath-taking.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi lives in the House. He supposes he always has. Only one other person lives in the House, Piranesi calls him The Other as he has never known anyone else in the house, though he has found evidence of other people in the forms of their skeletons and makes a point of tending the fourteen dead. But one day a stranger comes to the house, and the knowledge she brings will turn Piranesi’s world upside down.

Susanna Clarke writes wickedly clever books. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was wickedly clever in skewering the style of a 19th century novel, while creating an epic fantasy. Piranesi, by contrast feels far more restrained, a focused, almost academic novel that defies categorisation – part allegory, part travelogue, part personal philosophy.

For me, Piranesi felt a bit like a refraction of Plato’s Cave allegory through the lens of Robinson Crusoe. Instead of watching shadows on the wall, Piranesi sees the statues of the house which represent lost knowledge that have flowed from our real world. In his Crusoe-esque travelogue, he tries to make sense of his world, his lost past repressed by the amnesia inducing powers of the house, believing that he infers the existence of large numbers of people from the existence of the statues, and marvelling that he can makes sense of the idea of a university without the existence of one in his world, The House.

For all it’s relative brevity, Piranesi is one of those books that I could see would stay with you. It leaves you with so many questions, so many things to find an explanation for. What are we intended to take away from Piranesi’s reverence of the house? Are the birds truly augurs, what does the presence of the albatrosses and their chick mean? Is there an environmental/ecological analogy in Piranesi’s rejection of the quest for the Great Knowledge and appreciation of the house itself? While the other sees the house as Piranesi’s prison and a threat, Piranesi sees it as a sanctuary, a protective force; does the inhabitant project their own character onto the house? Is it in that sense a sort of crucible? And who is the skeleton of the little girl with the necklace?

Have you read it? What did you think?