Posts Tagged ‘Maggie O’Farrell’

The Top 12 List of the Favorite Fiction I Have Read in 2020


This being the year of the lockdown, I had time to read a couple of lengthy doorstop novels (‘The Maias’ and ‘Life A User’s Manual’) just like I used to do before I began writing regular blog posts. Also this year I discovered that there was some amazing fiction from the past which I had missed previously.

Click on either the bold-faced title or the cover image to see my original review for each work.


The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós (1888) – ‘The Maias’ is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Readers new to Eça de Queirós can start with the short novella ‘The Yellow Sofa’ to determine if you like his style of writing or not.


‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar (2020) – ‘A Burning’ is a vivid powerful novel which focuses on one of the major crises in our world today, racial hatred. ‘A Burning’ is a world-changer if enough people read it and take it to their minds and souls.




‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) – A most intense depiction of family life and death in the late 16th century. Imagine an entire novel about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.




‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2017) – ‘Tyll’ is a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.


Missionaries’ by Phil Klay (2020) – ‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is most focused on the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. It is a novel that will change your entire worldview.


‘Woe From Wit’ by Alexander Griboedov (1823) – From the very first words in the prologue of this verse play in four acts you can tell that it is going to be sharp and special:

Fate’s a mischief making tease,

That’s her character in brief,

a fool is blissfully at his ease,

a man of spirit comes to grief.


‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman (2017) – Someone could argue that the story in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is not very sophisticated. I do not see sophistication as a necessary or even desirable attribute of literature. Rather I see stating situations as simply and clearly as possible as one of the hallmarks of good literature, and that ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ does. Eleanor Oliphant’ is a poignant and affecting story.


‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (2016) – ‘Hurricane Season’ is not for the squeamish or easily offended. The characters in this novel tell the truth about some very rough things. They are angry and the words they use are coarse and direct. Read ‘Hurricane Season’ if you are brave and honest enough to take it.



Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen (2018) – These eloquent stories go deeper into the circumstances and the psyches of their main characters than most stories do. People in them almost connect but not quite. This is a collection of short stories which will move you if you are willing to be moved.


‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid (2020) – ‘Such a Fun Age’ is a novel with a light touch that captures the dialogue of people socializing, whether it be a group at a party or dinner or just two people alone. Rather than an individual character contemplating a problem or situation, we get the interplay of many voices. What this novel really excels in are exchanges between groups of young women, whether young mothers or young single women. Kiley Reid’s enthusiasm for her story rubs off on the reader.


Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain (2020) – ‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create. One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.


‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – I just cannot leave this novel off my year’s best list even though at times I loathed, loathed it and at other times I loved, loved it.






Also this year I read two excellent works of non-fiction – ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson and ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan.





My favorite collection of poems in 2020 is ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen.










‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell – A Primal Fiction about the Wife and Kids of William Shakespeare


‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell  (2020) – 305 pages

Besides the immortal plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare, we know next to nothing about himself, his family, or his circumstances. This is the ideal situation for a writer with a rich imagination to write a fiction of his family life. It allows a vivid mind to freely roam without factual constraints.

So few records regarding Shakespeare’s family exist that I probably wouldn’t even classify ‘Hamnet’ as historical fiction.

We know he married Anne Hathaway (Her actual name was probably Agnes), had three children, and that his son Hamnet died in 1596 at age 11. We also know that he wrote and staged the play Hamlet three years later. Hamnet and Hamlet were considered the same name at that time.

Imagine an entire book about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.

In ‘Hamnet’, William is but a lesser character while his wife Agnes and his daughters Susanna and Judith and son Hamnet take center stage.

In the Afterword, Maggie O’Farrell writes, “This novel is the result of my idle speculation.” Hooray for idle speculation. In ‘Hamnet’, the author fully inhabits the wife Agnes. You can feel it in the matter-of-fact tone of her short sentences.

She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself about where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.”

This is the most intense depiction of life and death in the late 16th century and how they must have been like. As well as the delights of courtship and marriage, we get an affecting portrayal of the grief of the mother, the father, and the rest of the children when young Hamnet gets sick and dies.

Agnes is a woman broken into pieces, crumbled and scattered around.”

‘Hamnet’ is about the elemental events in human lives – procreation, birth, childhood, courtship, marriage, illness, death – but not necessarily in that order. There is only a single reference in the entire novel to William’s genius:

You know what she said to me?”

The husband standing straight as a reed now, arms folded, lips pressed together, shakes his head. “What did she say?”

That you have more hidden away inside of you than anyone else she has ever met.”

William’s birthplace at Stratford on Avon

There has been much scholarly conjecture that William Shakespeare and his wife did not get along very well. First they point to the fact that she was three months pregnant when they married and he had to marry her. Then after the marriage, William spent most of his time in London writing and producing his plays, and only occasionally visited home. Then finally in his will written shortly before his death, he made only one bequest to his wife, “his second-best bed with the furniture”.

There is none of that in ‘Hamnet’. In the novel they are both totally enamored of each other.

Her husband holds her close as she clasps him with both arms, despite everything, just as she did that night, his body fitted to hers.”

Whether the conclusion contains a spark of historical truth or not, it is nothing less than grand. If you are not moved by this ending, you are a bigger fool than I am.


Grade:   A+



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