I have read two books recently which were top of my wish list for this year’s Booker Prize longlist but sadly didn’t make the cut. The omission of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell has surprised a lot of people although it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. O’Farrell’s eighth novel and her first foray into historical fiction is a reimagining of the short life of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet in Warwickshire in the late sixteenth century. The playwright himself only has a background part in this story which is told from the point of view of his wife Agnes (more commonly known as Anne Hathaway, O’Farrell uses the name given in her father’s will) who is the mother of their daughter Susanna followed by twins Hamnet and Judith. The novel focuses on events before and after Hamnet’s early death at the age of 11 in 1596, the true cause of which is unknown but is presented as bubonic plague here.
O’Farrell is inventive in her interpretation of the characters without the need to constantly align with the known facts about Shakespeare’s family life given that there are so few of them. She also avoids another common problem with historical fiction, namely too much exposition. The characters are so well drawn that the details of the setting fall into place effortlessly and the passage detailing the journey of the flea that caused the plague to arrive at Stratford is brilliantly done too. Death in childhood being so common at the time does not lessen Agnes’ grief and the shock and suddenness of it is movingly portrayed. Yet despite the dominance of this event, ‘Hamnet’ is not just about the devastating loss of a child – it is also a well-drawn portrait of Agnes as a woman, wife and mother.
I read a proof copy of Summerwater by Sarah Moss back in April which has just been published in the UK last week. Set in a holiday camp on the shore of a Scottish loch, ‘Summerwater’ depicts a single day of a nightmarish staycation – biblical amounts of rain, a cast of characters including an elderly couple, teenagers and stressed mothers, and a growing sense of dread that something very bad is definitely going to happen. Brexit and climate change provide the main political commentary and there also seem to be some unintentionally prescient shadows of the pandemic with the characters all confined to their cabins, but it’s possible I was reading too much into this at the height of lockdown.
‘Summerwater’ easily matches Ghost Wall in terms of Moss’s skill at building tension and atmosphere. It also revisits the menacing toxic masculinity theme of that novel through Justine’s husband Steve and other recurring motifs of her whole body of work including parenting, health issues and national identity. Due to its brevity at just over 200 pages with a relatively large cast of 12 characters, ‘Summerwater’ reads best as a series of vignettes without the extra padding of a fully fleshed-out novel. The impact of the ending is just as powerful though. Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.