Review: Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

Like grieving, this novel lingers, delicate and devastating

A tale of devastating grief with Shakespearean influence, O’Farrell’s novel is an elegy to the fragility of life, and follows the everyday, everlasting, ever-lingering effect of loss on a playwright and his wife living in Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 1500s.

Though this is evidently Shakespeare, as he also experienced the death of his young child early in life, O’Farrell’s Will isn’t the illustrious playwright, but the young Latin tutor falling in love, the longed-for father following his work to London, adrift from his wife and children in Stratford, and the artist so desperate to author a different life for his lost child that this act of preservation proves too poetic, too disaffecting, for his grieving wife, Agnes.

As, after all, it’s not the lofty poetry of Will’s life in London that’s the focus of the novel, but the practicalities of death and the private duty that Agnes devotes her life to in Stratford. Laced with detail and with all of O’Farrell’s elegance, Hamnet, like grieving, lingers, delicate and devastating, long after the final act.

Originally for Culturefly’s Yearly Favourites Feature

Review: The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

Polly. Annie. Elizabeth. Kate. Mary Jane.

These are the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper, a Victorian figure whose famously violent legacy still plagues the streets of the Whitechapel district of East London, with walks, fictions, and periodicals dedicated to offences so vicious and folkloric that they and their faceless culprit are the focus of deathly fascination.

The five – Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – were left with a far less illustrious legacy. A footnote to their antagonist, canon-fodder for the anecdote, they were scapegoats, accepted as prostitutes without proof, disfigured, disgraced, displayed as photographs of defaced corpses, and, largely, forgotten from their own stories in favour of the surgical details of their deaths.

Forgotten, that is, until The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper: Continue reading “Review: The Five – Hallie Rubenhold”

Review: Historical Fiction – Forgetting & Familiars

The Binding – Bridget Collins

Memories are tough to imagine: meticulous and muscular, fractured and fragile and ephemeral, forgotten and evoked and etched into our character – yet, what if you could extract them, etch them onto a page, and forget your grief, your regrets, or your gravest memories?

This is the tempting yet terrifying premise of The Binding: the tale follows Emmett Farmer as he’s apprenticed to the peculiar art of extracting torturous and disruptive memories from the desperate, the exploited, and the defenceless, transforming them into an attractive volume for a less attractive fee, and leaving the purchaser – or victim – with less of themselves. With memories as fragile and valued as this, what has Emmett forgotten?

Told in three acts from three perspectives – two characters, three moments in time – the novel transforms from the fantastical to the romantic. The private, devious practise is left in the dark after the first act, and Collins devotes more time and poetic writing to painting a detailed, and, at times visceral, portrait of Emmett’s developing affections and their devastating physical and psychological effects. Collins’s prose is rich with detail and description, and though it’s occasionally too decorative to picture, her portrayal of the devilish de Havilland and Emmett’s antediluvian tutor Seredith are adept, true-to-life depictions.

The Familiars – Stacey Halls 

‘Prudence and Justice’: the formal motto of the Shuttleworths – the aristocratic family that young, naïve, and pregnant Fleetwood is married to and mistress of – that forms the firm, unforgiving worldview of the mighty and the magistrates in 1612. Yet, if there was prudence for those on trial for witchcraft at Pendle that same year, there was also prejudice.

Stacey Halls’s historical fiction novel The Familiars follows Fleetwood as her privileged life is laced into the prejudices of the witches’ persecution when her midwife, Alice Grey, is suspected of witchcraft. Dependent on Alice, the wild-eyed druggist she finds wandering in the forest, for her fourth pregnancy to produce a descendant for the Shuttleworths, Fleetwood’s destiny weaves fatefully with Alice’s.

The writing is attractive and addicting, with the depictions of life for Fleetwood pulsing with her desperation not just for Alice’s proficiency in prescriptions but for her friendship, too. With marriages, miscarriages, and a fight against a frighteningly merry magistrate, The Familiars is full of graceful and graphic imagery, from the familiar glimpses of a flaming fox to Fleetwood’s fiery confrontation with Alice’s grimacing father.

Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Listening for love: a symphony of heartfelt feelings, full of humour

music shop

Shakespeare once wrote, ‘if music be the food of love, play on’, but for Frank, the loveable, bearlike lead in The Music Shop, music is also the food of community, companionship, and change. A tale that’s heartfelt and full of humour, it revolves, like a vinyl record, around the turntable in Frank’s music shop, with Joyce unfolding her narrative like the needle: pointed, precise, but through which prose of such sweet simplicity can play – and it practically sings.

Music permeates not only the plot, but the prose, the characters, and even the chapter titles. The story centres on Frank, a consummate listener who listens to his customers’ emotional ailments until he can find them a cure in the form of a song, and it could be anything from Beethoven to the Pet Shop Boys. Frank listens not only to what his customers say, but what they don’t: he hears what music is sounding in their souls, and what’s most unsettling and frustrating for him is when there’s only silence, and it’s a mysterious muteness he finds in the green-coated, continually-gloved German Ilse Brauchmann. While a curious quietness envelops Ilse, Joyce never leaves us in silence; the chapter titles are often songs, and it weaves an inescapable rhythm into the novel until almost all the melodies are stuck in your head – with a whole new meaning to listen for after Frank’s enlightening music lessons – and you’re humming along as you read.

The hand Joyce offers to the reader to join in is just as friendly as the hands – and hearts – in her fictional community. On the aptly named Unity Street, Frank’s music shop is flanked by a host of fellow shopkeepers, each a lovingly crafted and fully-fleshed character: there’s Kit, the creative but haplessly clumsy helper in Frank’s shop, Father Anthony, a kindly, compassionate ex-Priest-and-alcoholic who always has a comforting hand to place on Frank’s stooping shoulders, and temperamental, tattooed Maud who has a kind heart under her covered skin. As far as a composition goes, they’re a real medley of tones, tempos, and times, and it doesn’t seem as though they’d be particularly harmonious, but Joyce makes them perform like a finely-tuned orchestra: sometimes in accord, sometimes cacophonous, but always together.

Yet, the community’s togetherness is threatened by change: from the closing of the shops on Unity Street – the scene where the shopkeepers sit on the street outside the shut-up bakery is a beautifully bittersweet show of solidarity – to Frank’s refusal to stock CDs. Frank finds the most solace in the stillness of his moments floating on the lake in a swan-shaped pleasure boat with Ilse Brauchmann beneath a moonlit sky, but he soon learns that life, like music – from songs to sonatas, even moonlit ones – must change. Joyce echoes the need for change when the narrative suddenly skips, like those inferior-sounding CDs, forward thirty years in the last third, in contrast to the flashes back to Frank’s unconventional childhood with his mother Peg, which are interspersed throughout like a counterpoint.

Music may be the food of love, but Joyce’s The Music Shop is much more than just a love-song; a symphony of heartfelt feelings performed by an orchestra of colourful characters, The Music Shop will make you want to listen closer, not only to music, but, like Frank, to your fellow man.

– from an uncorrected proof copy – thanks to Alison! – published by Doubleday on July 13th 2017, buy from Foyles for £14.99

Review: For the Winner by Emily Hauser

Awakening the ancient: an homage to the original myths, a new hero to cheer for, and an achingly human touch

for the winner

The age-old tale of Jason and the Argonauts: battle-hardened Greek heroes voyage to the far-off land of Colchis to fulfil a prophecy and capture the Golden Fleece, bringing back glory, inflated egos and even a girlfriend – however it’s told, it’s an exciting, timeless tale of trials and triumphs, but how do you breathe life into it today? In For The Winner, Emily Hauser awakens the ancient with an homage to the original myths, a new hero to cheer for, and an achingly human touch.

Reimagining a Greek myth means there’s a lot of ground to run: a host of Gods, the heroic Argonauts, an extensive map of far-off lands, but Hauser lets the exposition come from the most plausible place – the mouths of slaves, especially Atalanta’s feisty, faithful friend Myrtessa, who see it all first hand, and as a result it rarely feels forced. With such a wealth of myths to draw on, the paratextual material provided is not only immensely helpful but evidence of the depth of Hauser’s expertise, and whilst she honours the weight of history and writes with a erudite respect for her sources, she dives right to the heart of the story – the hustle of a marketplace, the exhaustion of an expedition, the sweet stickiness of an apricot – and even suggests some of it may be more lie than it is legend.

Atalanta is a Herculean hero, but she’s more heroic than he ever was: abandoned as a baby because she wasn’t a boy, her sure-footed, hard-fought fight to prove her worth as a woman in her own right is not only a refreshing take on an old tale, but as timely as it has ever been. This is about ambition, adventure, and a quest for equality, and Atalanta’s tale has a parallel in the goddess Iris, another woman waiting for her moment to win.

And, lastly, the greatest thing about this Greek retelling is that it is so alive. From the mortals – many of the men are all too recognisable as the ‘modern man’ with a golden cloak and a tan – to the Olympians – the narrative interspersed with italicised chapters from their perspective – and even the land, sea, and ships, everything is personified. The painful lashings on Atalanta’s palms elicit off the page, and the lashings of rain pour down on our heads as well as the heroes’. And not only that, but Hauser’s version focuses on friendship and family as much as fighting and fleeces, with prophecies and fate playing second fiddle to the very human power of choice and free will.  It’s a powerfully refreshing take on an age-old formula, and its hero has fought harder to be there than any other.

– from an uncorrected proof copy – thank you Hannah! – published by Doubleday on June 15th 2017, buy from Foyles for £14.99