Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell Potter

Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell PotterHamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Narrator: Ell Potter
Published by Random House Audio on July 21, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 12 hours and 42 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

Drawing on Maggie O'Farrell's long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare's most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley Street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O'Farrell's new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

Oh, this book. I just loved it. Recently, I shared in my review of Never Caught that the author missed an opportunity to weave historical fiction out of the facts we know about Ona Judge. Anne Hathaway Shakespeare is another woman we know very little about. She was pregnant when she married William Shakespeare (who was quite a bit younger than she was), she raised their children practically alone while he worked as an actor and playwright in London, and Shakespeare left her his second-best bed in his will. From these scraps of information, many scholars have concluded that their marriage was not a happy one. O’Farrell takes a different tactic and imagines a love match for the couple that is nearly destroyed by the death of their son and William Shakespeare’s depression and lack of fulfillment.

O’Farrell chooses to call her Anne “Agnes,” as her father referred to her in his will. Agnes is something of an herbalist (and maybe a witch). She’s every bit as fascinating as Shakespeare (maybe more so, under O’Farrell’s pen). The story alternates between Agnes and Hamnet as narrators, for the most part, with tidbits from other characters such as Susanna and Judith. The story also shifts in time, beginning with Hamnet looking for someone, anyone (but particularly Agnes) to help him—his twin sister Judith is sick.

The historical details ring true. As a bread baker and soap maker, I especially appreciated O’Farrell’s references to Agnes’s talents in both areas. Agnes also keeps bees and is something of a bee charmer. However, my absolute favorite historical detail was O’Farrell’s chronicle of the journey of the flea that carried the bubonic plague to Stratford and, ultimately, to the Shakespeare household. It was utterly fascinating. As we are living in the midst of a pandemic right now, the details are also alarmingly present. How did the virus that infected my entire family with COVID-19 in January make its way to us? How does sickness travel like that? I think I appreciated O’Farrell’s exploration of the way the plague traveled even more for having a personal connection to another form of plague.

I couldn’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when I read. In that book, Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s equally talented sister who is unable to do the things her brother can do because she is a woman, and those doors are closed to her. What if Shakespeare’s wife were even more talented than he? That is actually how I interpret Agnes’s character. Yet she sacrifices so that he can realize his dreams and their children can be cared for. She’s not different from talented women throughout history in this respect.

Ell Potter is a charming narrator. I’m glad the audiobook was read by a woman, as ultimately, I think this a woman’s story. That’s not to say men wouldn’t enjoy it; quite the contrary, and maybe men should read it. Ron Charles has a great review of the book at The Washington Post. I definitely recommend this book to any fans of Shakespeare, though I caution you that he’s relegated to the sidelines. This story is the story of his family.

five-stars

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, narrated by Matthew Blaney

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, narrated by Matthew BlaneySay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
Narrator: Matthew Blaney
Published by Random House Audio on 2019
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

From award-winning New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.

In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.

Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, to Gerry Adams, who negotiated the peace but betrayed his hardcore comrades by denying his I.R.A. past. Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.

I read this book on the recommendation of an English teacher friend, Carol Jago. She is one of the most voracious and widely-read people I know, and she has never recommended a book that wasn’t brilliant. This book is no exception. If you are like me and do not know much about The Troubles, this book is a great introduction that will leave you wanting to know more. I know, for example, that I want to read Ed Moloney’s book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland. If I’m being honest, even though I understand why Ireland was partitioned, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that the island is still divided, and I have a feeling it won’t be for too many more years.

I first remember hearing anything about The Troubles as a child, when the Irish Republican prisoners’ hunger strike in the early 1980s was in the news. I remember being really confused by the whole thing. Further, I remember feeling horrified that it was happening. The Troubles were mostly out of the new in the U.S., however. It was easy to know nothing about what was happening in Northern Ireland. Every once in a while, a story about some action or other by the I.R.A. would show up on the news. An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The High Ground” centered on the struggles of the Ansata rebels against the Rutians—it was a very thinly veiled allusion to The Troubles. The Ansata rebel leader’s name was even Kyril Finn. Finn is not only a common surname in Ireland, but it’s also potentially a reference to Fionn mac Cumhaill, a mythological figure in Ireland and the inspiration for the Fenian Brotherhood, a precursor to the I.R.A. Commander Data makes a reference to terrorism effectively achieving the reunification of Ireland in 2024. The episode aired in 1990. At that time, it seemed unlikely, but Brexit will change the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic—as Keefe wonders in his book’s conclusion, I can’t help but speculate if, after years of bloodshed, it will be the politics of Brexit that finally prompt the reunification of Ireland on the same timeline, more or less, as Star Trek predicted. The idea is so incendiary that RTÉ has never aired the episode, and it only aired on the BBC in 2007.

Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams does not come off well, and his repeated insistence that he was never in the I.R.A. strikes me as a bald-faced lie. The Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, are written in their complexity: at the same time as you know they engaged in terrorist acts, and you want to condemn them, they also come off as, well, kind of badass, and you want to admire them for that. I mean no disrespect to their victims in saying so. The descriptions of their force-feeding during their hunger strike are harrowing, and Keefe makes a fairly good case for the lifelong aftereffects seriously impacting the sisters’ health. Above all, Jean McConville emerges as a poignant victim. Whether or not she was a “tout,” as the I.R.A. claimed, she can’t have been providing much useful information, and if she was spying for the British, one can hardly blame her for trying to take care of her ten children, whose lives were irrevocably destroyed by their mother’s murder.

My husband and I listened to this on audio together. Matthew Blaney is an actor from Northern Ireland, and I have to say, it’s something else to hear this story narrated by someone who sounds like the people Keefe is writing about. I would definitely listen to Matthew Blaney read again, even if I have to put up with Steve mimicking an Irish accent into the bargain. His reading is an interpretation of the text—where he emphasizes, the listener learns to pay attention. As much as I recommend the audio, I know I missed some details (as well as the Notes), so I downloaded the book on Kindle for a re-read when I get the chance.

Definitely one of the top nonfiction books I’ve read in some time. It’s gripping, and it is told almost like a mystery novel (especially if you don’t know as much about The Troubles). The book’s final revelations will leave your head spinning.

I made a Spotify playlist about music inspired by The Troubles.

five-stars

Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Hitchhiker's Guide, #2) by Douglas Adams, Martin Freeman
Narrator: Martin Freeman
Published by Random House Audio on July 3, 2006
Pages: 6
Format: Audio
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four-stars

Facing annihilation at the hands of the warlike Vogons is a curious time to have a craving for tea. It could only happen to the cosmically displaced Arthur Dent and his curious comrades in arms as they hurtle across space powered by pure improbability, and desperately in search of a place to eat.

Among Arthur's motley shipmates are Ford Prefect, a longtime friend and expert contributor to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Zaphod Beeblebrox, the three-armed, two-headed ex-president of the galaxy; Tricia McMillan, a fellow Earth refugee who's gone native (her name is Trillian now); and Marvin, the moody android who suffers nothing and no one very gladly. Their destination? The ultimate hot spot for an evening of apocalyptic entertainment and fine dining, where the food (literally) speaks for itself.

Will they make it? The answer: hard to say. But bear in mind that the Hitchhiker's Guide deleted the term "Future Perfect" from its pages, since it was discovered not to be!

LENGTH 5 hrs and 50 mins

My husband and I finished listening to this one tonight. I had previously listened to and reviewed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I hadn’t gotten around to this one yet. After listening to Hitchhiker’s Guide together, we decided to keep going.

These books are relatively short and pretty funny. My husband remarked after we finished the book that Douglas Adams must not have been an outliner, and I agree, this one felt like it meandered a bit—literally like the writer might have been going along for the ride to see where the characters would take him. I’m not sure it is quite as good as The Hitchhiker’s Guide, but it’s not bad, and Martin Freeman is an excellent narrator. The production values on this audiobook are considerable as well. At times, Freeman’s voice is digitally altered. I believe this series of audiobooks was released to coincide with the film in 2005, in which Freeman played Arthur Dent.

The book is no good as a standalone. It picks up right where The Hitchhiker’s Guide leaves off, and it ends without tying together any loose ends. It feels very much like what it is: a book in the middle of a series. It’s definitely a fun book and probably more fun in audio

four-stars