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Antonia White: the author of the Frost in May quartet – a truly wonderful series of novels – suffered all her life from terrible writer’s block. It was only after her death that this short autobiography was discovered – she had spent the last fifteen years of her life working on it. The book is edited by her daughter Susan Chitty. As Once in May deals with just the first six years of the author’s life – and it is quite extraordinary in its recall and its ability to recreate those so long ago childhood feelings.

The opening few chapters – as is usual I think with autobiographies – concerns Antonia’s parents and grandparents and their parents. Her father Cecil Botting: a classics schoolmaster, came from a family of Sussex farmers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. It was from her mother that Antonia (actually born Eirene Adeline) took her surname, hating Botting, and all the childhood teasing that went with it, and who could blame her. Both of her White grandparents had sadly died by the time she was a baby, so she never knew them. The Whites were upper middle class, and Antonia’s mother’s mother who died when she was a baby, had been the second wife of a much older man.

Eirene – or Antonia as I shall continue to call her was born in 1899, the only child of Cecil Botting and Christine White. The family lived in Perham Road in London for many years, from where Cecil Botting was able to easily get to St. Paul’s School where he taught, and from where he often tutored students in the evenings. Here the family had just one servant Lizzie, who adored Antonia and could never bear to see her reprimanded. Despite having been a little disappointed not to have had a son, Cecil Botting believed he could just as easily turn his daughter into a good Classics scholar and set out to do so from the time she was very small.

“I know for certain that I was three when my father decided once again to try and impress something on my memory. This time his effort was not wasted as it had been over Queen Victoria’s funeral. I could not forget the first line of the Iliad if I tried or the circumstances in which I learnt it.

He must have been longing from my birth for the day when he could begin my classical education.”

One thing that really made me sit up in surprise (I don’t know if I disbelieve this or not) was Antonia’s assertion that she had a couple of very clear memories from babyhood. She calls these her first lucid moments – the black rails of her cot above her surrounded by white hangings. Later, questioning her parents it was revealed that she did indeed sleep in such a cot. Antonia herself seems more surprised by those things from very early childhood that she cannot remember that she would have thought would have made more impression on her but clearly didn’t.

However, what she does remember is remarkable. No doubt her memories are fuelled by those conversations about the past that occur in all families, but considering she was writing this book well into her seventies, her recall and feeling for those long ago years is perhaps surprisingly sharp.

Antonia White recounts those first few years of childhood through a series of delightful vignettes. She writes with great affection of the toy dog Mr Dash that her mother presented her with on her parents return from a holiday. There is Antonia’s experience as a bridesmaid and the glorious hat which her mother later appropriated for herself. Then, at four years old in Kensington Gardens Antonia falls in love – the object of her affection a little boy, who at seven years old seems almost grown up to her. The two become almost inseparable visiting one anther frequently for years – but in these early days the game of Mr and Mrs John Barker is invented in the nursery.

Most evocative of all though is Antonia’s description of her summer life at Binesfield, the country home of her father’s family. The cottage in West Sussex gave Antonia a taste of a very different life – the toilet was outside to begin with. Here her grandmother’s sisters Agnes and Clara lived, and Antonia looked forward all year to her summer visit.

“The night was cloudy, though here and there in a rift twinkled a star or two, the first I had ever seen, for I had never been out of doors so late. The excitement of driving at night through the damp, sweet-smelling air almost made up for not being able to see the country I was so longing to see. The light from the fly’s lamp, in whose aureole fluttered moths and tiny insects, showed u hedgerows and now and then a white gate or a cottage. I kept asking eagerly ‘Is that Binesfield?’ every time a dark bulk with a glimmer in some of its windows loomed up ahead of us. But the answer was always ‘Not yet dear.’”

It was also here where religion was first put on the agenda. Up to this point Antonia had received no religious education at all, at Binesfield it was suddenly suggested she say her prayers before bed. Of course, we know that later in childhood Antonia and her father converted to Catholicism (Frost in May was also very autobiographical).

It seems that Antonia White originally intended this to be a longer work of autobiography, and it is tantalising to imagine what she might have written had she be able to go on. Still, what remains in the most beautiful evocation of childhood, which is a must for those of us who loved the Frost in May quartet.

My feminist book group chose Nina is not Ok by Shappi Khorsandi as our May book. With a lot of Daphne du Maurier reading on my horizon, I thought I should get started on it in good time, and it actually proved a quick read. This is not the kind of book I am known for reading, and I have to be honest there is no way I would have read it without my book group. I knew it wouldn’t be my kind of thing really, but I was determined to give it a good go.

Shappi Khorsandi is primarily known as a comedian, and there can be a bit of snobbery about celebrities writing books, and I really didn’t want to fall into that trap. I’ll be honest I had had no idea she had written a novel until my book group picked this. She had previously published an autobiography which I hadn’t heard of either. I couldn’t help but notice when adding it to my Goodreads, that it has a pretty high Goodreads rating. So, I shall start by saying that I didn’t completely hate this book, but neither can I say I enjoyed it. I was glad I had time to speed through it and get it done. Bear in mind this is absolutely not my kind of book – and many other readers love it. Certainly, there are several things that Shappi Khorsandi does well in this book, and my book group meeting by Zoom on Monday will have plenty to discuss.

Nina is not Ok, is a coming of age novel for the twenty-first century, it is honest, funny and really rather dark – far darker than I might have expected. Themes of alcoholism, sexual assault, friendship, family, sexuality, and blame combine to make a fast paced narrative told in a very realistic teenage voice.

Nina is seventeen, she lives with her mum, stepfather, and younger sister. We see clearly very early on that she is on a self-destruct collision course. Her own father died when she was a little girl, and she carries the loss of him every day. He was an alcoholic, his drinking killed him in the end, and Nina remembers a man who was the life and soul one minute often making her laugh – but whose mood could change rapidly. As a result, her childhood was quite chaotic and now her mother has re-married to the very stable Alan and had her little sister Katie. Katie’s childhood will be altogether different.

As the novel opens Nina is out with her friends Beth and Zoe – they are at a nightclub, Nina is very, very drunk. She becomes separated from her friends and is thrown out the club for performing a sex act on a young man at the bar. Later Nina is brought home by a concerned taxi driver, with no memory of what happened after she left the club. Recently, Nina been drinking a lot – she tells herself that everyone drinks, and her mother’s upset, and concern just irritates her. The following morning Nina is not in a very good state, and she still can’t remember much of what happened – she has a terrible creeping sense of shame that she might have done something else – but she really doesn’t know and her friends can’t help fill in the blanks.

“By noon I have shuffled downstairs. Pieces of the night have come back to me and I am filled with a shame so intense I wonder how I can remain alive. I could jump off a cliff? But I’ve been to Beachy Head. It wasn’t all that sheer. It seemed like you’d bounce to death and it would hurt and I can’t cope with that, not with a hangover. I want to pick up a saucepan and hit myself on the head with it so I can get last night out.”

When not drinking and going out, Nina is studying toward her A-levels at college – and is generally thought a clever student – she doesn’t need to make quite the same effort as her friend Beth. She attends an extra-curricular creative writing class – and fantasises a little about the teacher, Isabelle. Nina recently broke up with her boyfriend Jamie – he broke up with her went to Hong Kong and got a new girlfriend. He had been her first real boyfriend – she thought he was the one, they had planned to go to the same university. Now she has to rethink everything and get used to Jamie not being in her life – she can’t help messaging him when she’s drunk and stalks his Facebook profile. With so many things going on in her head, Nina turns more and more to drink, she goes out far more often than her mother thinks necessary, and even takes to sneaking some of Alan’s alcohol from the drink’s cabinet. Her behaviour is often shocking, she puts herself into some horrendous situations – and really I just wanted to look away. Her exploits are becoming legendary all over college – and still she can’t remember what happened the night she was thrown out of the club – and her friend Zoe is now going out with that young man – with no idea of what went on just before she met him. As Nina’s behaviour and her life start to spiral out of control the relationships she has with her friends even start to change.

“The most amazing part of rehab is the AA meetings. When I listen to other people, this magic thing happens: someone will suddenly put something I feel into words.

Booze gave me the illusion that I wasn’t alone but once it worse off I was adrift and sinking. In rehab I have not yet reached the shore but I am learning ways to keep afloat. I’ve become like one of those sharks in Finding Nemo.”

In desperation Nina’s step-father pays for her to go to rehab. That is not the end of Nina’s story however, when she leaves rehab she has a lot of things to face, before she can move forward.

So, while this novel is frequently shocking, it’s not (I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler) without hope. Shappi Khorsandi seems to understand what might make someone press that self-destruct button. Throughout the novel are questions about blame and how we deal with what others think of us, social media necessarily plays a part. All of which made me glad that I was seventeen in 1985 and not today.

It is no wonder to me that Elizabeth von Arnim continues to be so loved by readers more than seventy years after her death. Christopher and Columbus may just have become my favourite of her novels and I can think of no more perfect antidote to the lockdown blues than to read this charmingly, effervescent novel.

First published in 1919 it harks back to a time when women were too often portrayed as either delicate little creatures or terrifying old harpies – but this needn’t get your feminist sensibilities in too much of a spin, because I remain convinced that Elizabeth von Arnim, always had her tongue placed firmly in her cheek. She is so adept at showing us the absurdities of people. Christopher and Columbus is witty, light, bright and deliciously cynical. If Elizabeth von Arnim had any message in this one, it is perhaps in showing the cruelty of the anti-German sentiment so prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic during WW1.

The Christopher and Columbus of the title are the two Annas; Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas von Twinkler, seventeen year old twins. Their father died some years earlier and as World War one gets under way, they lose their beloved mother too. Their mother was English, their father German, having spent much of their lives in Germany, they roll their rs in a way their English relatives find deplorable. In fact, their Germanness is a big issue for their English Aunt Alice’s very patriotic (idiotic) husband Uncle Arthur with whom the Annas were obliged to stay. Wishing to be rid of these enemy aliens who his friends will inevitably regard with suspicion, Uncle Arthur arranges for their passage to America (the US not yet in the war) putting money in a bank account, and providing letters of introduction to a couple of family friends – he sends them out into the world, only too glad to be rid of them. Having been protected and cosseted all their lives, they are as lambs to the slaughter, naïve and unworldly but utterly devoted to one another.

“Their names were really Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas; but they decided, as they sat huddled together in a corner of the second-class deck of the American liner St. Luke, and watched the dirty water of the Mersey slipping past and the Liverpool landing-stage disappearing into mist, and felt that it was comfortless and cold, and knew they hadn’t got a father or a mother, and remembered that they were aliens, and realized that in front of them lay a great deal of gray, uneasy, dreadfully wet sea, endless stretches of it, days and days of it, with waves on top of it to make them sick and submarines beneath it to kill them if they could, and knew that they hadn’t the remotest idea, not the very remotest, what was before them when and if they did get across to the other side, and knew that they were refugees, castaways, derelicts, two wretched little Germans who were neither really Germans nor really English because they so unfortunately, so complicatedly were both,–they decided, looking very calm and determined and sitting very close together beneath the rug their English aunt had given them to put round their miserable alien legs, that what they really were, were Christopher and Columbus, because they were setting out to discover a New World.”

Anna-Rose is the eldest by twenty minutes, and she takes her responsibilities as elder sister very seriously. She is small and a little more serious than her sister who is much taller and something of a dreamer. Anna-Felicitas is frequently the sister to be the most ill on board ship – but there is a definite suggestion of toughness beneath it all.

Travelling second class (Uncle Arthur really couldn’t bear to be more generous than that), and beset with sea sickness, they meet first class passenger; thirty-something entrepreneur Mr Twist. Mr Twist, the inventor of the non-tricking teapot that adorns every breakfast table in America, sees two huddled up figures alone and ill and some kind of maternal instinct he was unaware of kicks in and he immediately takes them under his wing. His plan is to offer friendship and protection to these girls who he can’t help but view as little more than children – and then hand them over to their uncle’s friends. Nothing quite works out as he had planned. The two Annas are ill-prepared for the world, they manage to upset the German women they share their cabin with – worry about the etiquette of tipping, which they have never had to do before – are socially rather awkward, having at the same time absolutely no filter. The dialogue between the two of them is one of the best things in this novel.

On arrival in New York, there is no one to meet the Annas, the friends have not materialised and Mr Twist feels duty bound to help them to at least reach the home of these friends. While Mr Twist persists in his view of the sisters being little more than children – the rest of the world certainly views them differently. They are two remarkably attractive young women of marriageable age – escorted by an unmarried man to whom they are not related – the world is suitably shocked. While Mr Twist valiantly tries to assist his new friends, who have a habit of chattering away to anyone who shows them any interest, he is causing a mild sensation everywhere they go. A comedy of errors naturally follows, and Mr Twist is obliged to abandon his home coming (his horrified mother – not the first person to view the twins with grave suspicion) and accompany them to California to look up the second set of Uncle Arthur’s friends. The Twinkler twins are frequently puzzled by American hotels, unwittingly upsetting the management of one with their new pet canary.

“That evening, while the twins were undressing, a message came up from the office that the manager would be obliged if the Miss Twinklers’ canary wouldn’t sing.

‘But it can’t help it,’ said Anna-Felicitas through the crack of the door she held open; she was already in her nightgown. ‘You wouldn’t either if you were a canary,’ she added, reasoning with the messenger.

‘It’s just got to help it,’ said he.

‘But why shouldn’t it sing?’

‘Complaints.’

‘But it has always sung’

‘That it so. And it has sung once too often. Its unpopular in this hotel, that canary of yours. Its just got to rest a while. Take it easy. Sit quiet on its perch and think’

‘But it won’t sit quiet and think.’

‘Well, I’ve told you,’ he said, going away.”

Mr Twist does everything he can to shield their Germanness from everyone they meet – while he is unconcerned by their parentage, he is aware that almost everyone else feels differently. The Annas remain oblivious to any suggestion of scandal and wide eyed with innocence and enthusiasm they throw themselves into Mr Twist’s plan for their future. These plans are inspired by the twins love of afternoon tea, and their confusion at not being able to get it anywhere. Here we also meet the hilarious Mrs Bilton, who Mr Twist employs on their behalf.

The ending is suitably adorable, and predictably romantic and I defy anyone not to finish this with a great big smile on their face.  

April in review

Well the lockdown continues – and may last a few weeks yet – and we’re all finding our own ways of coping with the new normal. I really hope you’re all keeping safe and well and finding plenty of good things to read. I read exactly nine books in April – three of them on my kindle, making the monthly book pile look a bit smaller.

I started April reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – which I enjoyed but I do think has been over hyped. Beautifully written with great emotion it tells the largely fictional story of William Shakespeare’s only son who died at eleven years old. It has now been shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize, whatever you think of the shortlist it is still a novel worth reading.

Karen and Simon hosted another club week, the year was 1920 and the first book I read was Penny Plain by Scottish author O Douglas. A kind of sweet, Cinderella story, where the reader can be fairly sure of a happy ending.

My second read for the 1920 club was rather different, but equally good. The Happy Foreigner by Enid Bagnold is the fictional account of Bagnold’s experiences in WW1. It’s the story of Fanny; an English woman working with the French army as the First World War comes to an end. Driving officers around the country, witnessing the damage done to the villages she passes through and falling in love with Julien, a French officer.

My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter Downes is one of the three recent publications from the British Library – part of their new Women writers series. The novel is narrated by Nevis Falconer a young novelist, who toward the end of 1930 muses upon her meeting with her husband Simon Quinn four years earlier. It’s a marriage based largely on physical attraction, the two have little in common, and the relationship starts to affect Nevis’ ability to write.

I don’t know what made me pick Midwinter by Fiona Melrose off the shelf, but I’m so glad I did. A thoroughly beautiful novel. This is a novel firmly rooted in the Suffolk landscape, a novel of a father and son, grief, guilt and how we find our way home. Beautifully written and deeply heartfelt.

Next was Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim, a satisfyingly thick VMC that Liz bought me at Christmas. It’s so wonderfully charming, it could easily become my favourite von Arnim. Review next week, I hope.

In May my book group will be discussing Nina is Not Ok by Shappi Khorsandi. One thing my book group does for me – more and more actually – is to force me out of my comfort zone. This is certainly not a bad novel – it just isn’t my kind of novel – and I thought it was just ok. It seems to have a lot of fans though; a pretty high GR rating and two other members of our book group have already admitted to reading and loving it. Our meeting will be on Zoom again, and I thought I had better try and read this book, as I wimped out of our April book, a collection of short stories, I read just two and won’t be reviewing them.

As Once in May by Antonia White is the autobiography of the author’s early childhood – the title so like that of her most famous novel served to confuse people on Twitter when I posted a picture of it. I only came across it by accident and really enjoyed it – White seeming to have had an extraordinary memory for her earliest years.

I raced through Silence in Court by Patricia Wentworth my first by this hugely prolific Golden Age writer. I loved the way Patricia Wentworth creates a fascinating dynamic between the family members involved in this mystery.

So, that was April. Looking ahead to May – and I am mainly concerned with my Daphne du Maurier reading week. As host, I shall start my reading early so I can get my reviews written up in reasonable time. I probably won’t post every day that week – you might be relieved to hear – and I’m afraid no giveaway this year either – sorry. Still, I hope lots of you will be joining in too in whatever way you can. I just need to decide which of the unread du Maurier books I have to read first. Other than Daphne du Maurier, I shall be reading very much according to my mood – as that has worked best for me so far the last few weeks.

Whatever you read in May; I hope you have a fantastic reading month. What did you read in April? You know I like to know.

From the moment I started reading this novel I was captivated, sometimes you just know you’re in for a beautiful reading experience. Midwinter was Fiona Melrose’s first novel, and I am fortunate to have her second novel Johannesburg waiting tbr. This is a novel firmly rooted in the Suffolk landscape, a novel of a father and son, grief, guilt and how we find our way home. Beautifully written and deeply heartfelt – I absolutely loved every word.

Landyn and Vale Midwinter; father and son are Suffolk farmers; they live together on the land their family worked before them for generations. Life is very difficult for them struggling to maintain their business in the face of the large corporations. The novel is narrated in alternating chapters by Landyn and Vale.

The two men have remained haunted for years by what happened during Vale’s childhood in Zambia. The family had taken up the call for farmers when things at home had seemed impossible, and Landyn was facing the ruin of his farm. Two years later Cecilia, Landyn’s wife, and Vale’s beloved mother is killed in a horrific incident at the family home in Zambia, and Landyn brought his traumatised son home to Suffolk.

“For ten years I’d shirked the memories. I always felt them scratching at the darker corners of my mind, still feral: but sitting on a tree stump in the gathering dark, all of it – the space, the fear, the sorrow all seemed to find me again. It was if the past ten years I’d only been standing still and I was back in a mess with a boy who only sees ghosts.”

Ten years on, and Vale is now twenty – a decade of grief and anger bottled up inside him threatens to explode – he has taken to blaming his father for everything that happened. While Vale is a ball of fury, his father is a quieter man, a man capable of great kindness, who loves his son desperately but simply can’t reach him. Landyn is never far from his old dog Pup, (warning for dog lovers, old Pup dies rather upsettingly during the course of the book – I feel I have to mention this.) He carries the loss of his wife with him constantly, finding comfort in the land and his animals, and especially the vixen who visits his land and appears to bring a degree of comfort and protection to his life.

“If there’s a night when I am lucky enough to get a glimpse of Cessie in my dreams, I can tell you as sure as day follows night, I’ll see my fox before the next day is out. Even half a look of my vixen and I’ll know it’s her like I know my own heart. I know too without ever asking that it is my fox that has kept blood in my boy’s veins.”  

As the novel opens, the beginning of a terrible winter seems to bring things between Landyn and Vale to a head. Following a terrible argument, Vale goes off to find solace in alcohol and his childhood friend Tom. Tom has always been Vale’s best friend, since before the family went to Africa, closer to Vale’s dad than his own drunken, waste of space of a father who is usually absent anyway. As a storm starts to blow up, the two drunken young men decide to take a boat out to where the river meets the sea in a swirling maelstrom of dangerous water. There are consequences for both young men that are destined to last months.  

“The water was syrup. Pa always said about boats, to send them out you have to work hard, charting the course and stuff, but for the most part, if you just give it some push, a boat always finds its way home. Same with horses. I didn’t give a shit about horses and I was well past ever wanting to see a boat again. You always hear about the speed of light travelling at this and that, but that night I knew for sure that darkness just stands still.”

The story of what happened in Zambia a decade earlier is told in flashback throughout the novel, and in those snapshots Fiona Melrose beautifully illustrates the confusion of a child who has just lost his mother. So much goes on over a child’s head, and the young Vale’s sorrow and confusion is palpable.

I loved the feeling of landscape in this novel – Fiona Melrose’s descriptions are wonderful and with them we have a feeling of loss that pervades the whole novel. Everything is portrayed so poignantly and with such understanding, as we watch Vale hit rock bottom, hoping that he can find his way back to the father who loves him so much.

The second of the British Library’s recent publications is My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter Downes. Mollie Panter Downes is probably known best for her wonderful collections of short stories published by Persephone books, and her beautiful post war novel One Fine Day, I also have her volume of London War Notes tbr another lovely Persephone edition I must get around to soon. This wonderful series of books each have an afterword by series consultant Simon of Stuckinabook.

Mollie Panter Downes really was a very fine writer, and this is demonstrated on every page of this novel which really has been out of print for far too long. Apart from being extremely well written – that is almost a given with this writer surely? but it is also a wonderful portrayal of London life in the early 1930s, and to a degree the position of women and the subtle class distinctions still prevalent at the time. It is also a novel that accurately demonstrates the desire for self-expression, the frustration of an artist (in this case a writer) unable to work in the way they wish to.

The novel is narrated by Nevis Falconer a young novelist, who toward the end of 1930 muses upon her meeting with her husband Simon Quinn four years earlier.

“I sometimes wonder, looking back at everything with the experience that four years ought to have brought, whether I would make up my mind quite so precipitously to marry Simon Quinn if I met him for the first time today. There are moods in which I tell myself: ‘Not a hope! Freedom and work are the only important things. My God haven’t four years taught you anything at all, you little fool?’ But at the back of my head I know quite clearly that if it happened all over again I should marry Simon just the same.”

As the novel opens Nevis is just twenty-four, and we learn that at the tender age of twenty-one when she had met her husband she was already the author of a successfully published novel. Invited to a weekend party by her good friend Cora – an older happily married woman, clearly settled into a comfortable domesticity. Here Nevis meets Simon Quinn, and the two are instantly physically drawn to one another, despite their obvious differences. Right from the start, Simon is a big presence in the novel – his effect on Nevis and her work is all consuming. At the end of the weekend Simon drives Nevis back to London, they stop at a roadside hotel, where inevitably they spend the night together. At home in London where she lives alone (making her immediately a little unconventional) Nevis views her current manuscript with some distraction, an attitude which heralds the difficulties she will have in balancing her relationship and her beloved work. Already it seems as if her head if not her heart is full of Simon.

Soon enough Nevis marries Simon, something she sees as having been practically inevitable from the moment they met. Their relationship remains a largely physical one, certainly they seem to have little in common. Simon is proud to say he never reads, enjoys telling Nevis’ friends that he is practically illiterate, he treats her writing as an eccentric little pastime, that she has no need to bother with now. Family and their social positions also provide potential division. Nevis is an orphan who has scandalously been living alone, but she does have a grandmother with a title. Simon’s family who Nevis always think of collectively as The Quinns – simply suffocate her. For Nevis they are of a type, a type she rather looks down on.

“Dining with the Quinns was not my idea of a stimulant after a depressing day. Our periodical family gatherings always gave me the sensation that I couldn’t breathe, that all of life and intelligence were being slowly crushed out of me by these terrible people. While I sat decorously eating saddle of mutton at the big mahogany table, I would have a crazy, panic-stricken longing to spring up and rush away from everyone – even from Simon, because he too was a Quinn. The phrase ‘a Quinn’ had come to symbolise a whole class of society in my mind, just as Galsworthy uses the phrase ‘Forsytes’ and Sinclair Lewis ‘Babbits.’ London was full of Quinns, eating saddle of mutton at handsome mahogany tables; going up steps of good clubs and stepping out of quiet, expensive cars; thinking that ‘art’ meant the Royal Academy, and ‘beauty’ was the sort of wishy-washy, rubber-stamp, damnable prettiness that you see on the lid of a chocolate box.”

Yes, Nevis is both a social and an intellectual snob, though she is very alive to the differences that exist between her and Simon. After they marry, Nevis publishes her second novel which neither she nor her publishers regard very highly. Now Nevis desperately wants to improve upon that disappointment and write her third novel – but her creativity is constantly in competition with her domestic and emotional life. She is nervous of her servants to whom she speaks very courteously, but who seem to despise her, while Simon who growls and snaps at them can do no wrong.

After three years living a fairly superficial life, with Simon, Nevis’ American publisher Marcus Chard comes to London. They meet to discuss her work; he has great faith in her writing and what she could achieve. He is a no nonsense tough talking individual, who ignites something in Nevis who becomes more desperate than ever to get down to work properly. As their friendship grows so does the likelihood that Nevis’ marriage may end. When Marcus offers Nevis the chance to spend some time in America in an apartment he owns, where she can work undisturbed, she has a lot to consider. Marcus most certainly has an ulterior motive, but Nevis decides she will deal with that later – the implication of course that she doesn’t much mind that idea.

This new Women Writers series from the British Library has certainly got off to a fabulous beginning, the third book they have published is the magnificent Chatterton Square by E H Young, which I read a few years ago, you can read my review of that here.

Well I have now read three of this year’s Women’s Prize longlist – which is quite unusual for me. I just loved the sound of this novel, so intrigued I bought a kindle copy on the day it was released. There has been a lot of love for Hamnet on social media and elsewhere – and some naysayers too – and I wondered which side I would come down on. Well I really thoroughly enjoyed it, I was easily swept up in the world that O’Farrell recreates here, its an immersive exploration of grief.

Of course, Maggie O’Farrell has taken the story of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet as her subject – and in the telling of his story she plunges us into the world of Stratford-Upon-Avon in the 1590s. William Shakespeare is not a main character in this novel – he takes a back seat to the other characters, and O’Farrell never uses his name. In this way, the reader doesn’t get too bogged down in all we think we know of him already. The focus of the novel instead is his wife – here called Agnes (apparently Anne Hathaway’s father’s will names her as Agnes – and the two names were often interchangeable at this period).

Agnes is a wonderful character – she is viewed with some suspicion by other people – though her knowledge of medicinal herbs and treatments are regularly sought by many in the town. She has her own way of doing things – which not everyone understands. She has great love for her children, a difficult relationship with her in-laws, though little idea of what her husband does in London at the playhouse. He is never named; he is always referred to as her husband, the children’s father, or the Latin tutor.

“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry.”

As the novel opens eleven year old Hamnet is desperately searching for someone to help – his beloved twin Judith is sick, and he knows its serious. His father is away in London, his elder sister is out, his grandparents who live next door cannot be found, he has no idea where his mother is either. In this section we are thrust into the close, crowded streets of sixteenth century Stratford-Upon-Avon, it is very evocative. History, as well as the blurb of this novel tells us that it is in fact Hamnet who dies almost certainly from Bubonic plague. The tension here as Hamnet searches for an adult to help his sister is palpable. Of course, soon after his mother returns and begins to care for Judith, we feel her terror at what she sees. As his mother sleeps Hamnet crawls in beside his twin, a fatal decision.

“He feels again the sensation he has had all his life: that she is the other side to him, that they fit together, him and her, like two halves of a walnut. That without her he is incomplete, lost. He will carry an open wound, down his side, for the rest of his life, where she had been ripped from him. How can he live without her? He cannot. It is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain.”

The first half of the novel is split into two time periods. There is the period when the twins become sick, and Agnes (as we must call her) facing the death of one of her children, must send a message to her husband at the playhouse in London. Alternating with that is a period fifteen years earlier when a young Latin tutor is employed to teach the half-brothers of Agnes. Agnes is seen as a wild young woman of strange habits, she flies a hawk, knows about plants and herbs and how to use them. When the Latin tutor first sees Agnes through a window with her hawk on her arm, he mistakes her for a boy. She is older than the Latin tutor – and always at odds with her stepmother who laughs at the very idea of the two of them making a match. However, when Agnes becomes pregnant a match is hurriedly made, much to the fury of both families.

In 1596, Judith begins to recover, and Hamnet dies. This is the focus of the novel – the death of a beloved child. Agnes’ grief is portrayed with great understanding – a scene where she must prepare his body for burial is particularly poignant. There is a timelessness to this story, the death of a child, the grief of a parent.

A few years later, Agnes’ husband has made a lot of money – though no one seems to understand how – and she and her two daughters are living in a new larger house. It is here that Agnes first hears about her husband’s new play – when she is shown a playbill with the name Hamlet across the top. She is devastated and confused – wanting only to know why Hamnet’s father would have stolen his name to put in a play.

“‘I find,’ he says, his voice still muffled, ‘that I am constantly wondering where he is. Where he has gone. It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind. Whatever I am doing, wherever I am, I am thinking: Where is he, where is he? He can’t have just vanished. He must be somewhere. All I have to do is find him. I look for him everywhere, in every street, in every crowd, in every audience.”

Maggie O’Farrell shows us how grief is dealt with differently by mother and father – and differently again by the twin left behind. The fact that twins appear in Shakespeare’s work suggests that Hamnet and Judith and the death of Hamnet was a pivotal period in his life.

So yes, I really did enjoy this novel, I think it will stay with me better than a couple of other O’Farrell novels I read some years ago. I must admit though, as much as I enjoyed it, for me it isn’t a prize winner – I’m glad it has received a lot of love, but I do think some of the praise has been a tiny bit too effusive. I don’t mean to be grumpy about it, because this is a good novel and deserves to do really well. Oh well, just my opinion.