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Book Reviews

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

The cover of this book is so stunning that despite the novel winning the¬†Women’s Prize for Fiction, I wondered if the content could live up to the exterior. Naturally, this turned out to be a completely unfounded fear. The novel is based on the short life of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, but focuses on the playwright’s wife Agnes (more commonly known as Anne Hathaway). Shakespeare himself is unnamed throughout the book. It’s an incredibly heartbreaking story of grief, loss, and mourning.

The world O’Farrell constructs is uniquely bewitching, entwining the earthiness of 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon with Agnes’ ethereality. The author’s immersive language recalls the era the book is set in, but avoids being dull or stodgy. Instead, it has a poetic clarity, skilfully binding the plot together and inviting the reader to follow. The plot itself is not fast-paced; the focus is on the emotions of Hamnet’s mother, his twin Judith, and even – before his death – his own.

The book jumps between two points in time. One is Agnes and Shakespeare’s meeting and marriage. The other is Hamnet’s death and its aftermath. The hope of the earlier story contrasted against the anguish of the latter is almost unbearable to read. Agnes is the antithesis to her bookish husband, her world rooted in plants, herbs, and animals. She possesses unusual insight and intuition. But Death throws red herrings in her path, evades her sixth sense, and steals her son away.

I didn’t anticipate how thoroughly this book would rip my heart out. O’Farrell dives into the pain of loss and pulls the reader under the surface with her. I would recommend Hamnet to absolutely everyone, but be warned: it is not light reading.

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Book Reviews

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other spans over a hundred years, following the stories of twelve interlinked Black British women. For most people, this would be an impossible feat ending in a collapsed and hopelessly messy structure, but Bernardine Evaristo isn’t most people. She spins each story from the finest threads and deftly weaves them together.

A Booker Prize winner (2019), this book has deservedly had a lot of hype. There are countless reviews of it out there, but I absolutely had to add my own because this book: wow.

With its fragmented sentence structure and lack of capital letters and full stops, the book is almost like poetry. Adopting such a writing style along with the complex plot is a risky choice, but Evaristo more than pulls it off. My thought pattern quickly started to echo the style of the book, and that’s when you know a book’s got under your skin.

I was captured by the glimpses into each character’s story. Every time a character’s section ended and we moved onto the next one, I’d wish their particular story could have carried on for the rest of the book. That is, until I’d swiftly become grasped by the next character and their life.

Evaristo covers an impressive range of themes. Race, gender, friendships, and relationships are at the forefront, set against a background of today’s Britain seen from twelve very different perspectives. While we may only visit each character for a short time, each theme is explored in great depth and with such variety that you could almost imagine each character was written by a different author.

This book is important. It is a total must-read and I’m jealous of anyone who still has yet to read it for the first time!