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Grief that inspired the Bard

This is Maggie O’Farrell’s first foray into historical fiction, and, as with her contemporary work, it’s the ebb and flow of emotions that carry this heartbreaking, beautifully written story along on its melancholy current.

On a hazy summer’s day in Stratford, 1596, Hamnet, the young, day-dreamy son of William Shakespeare, is searching his empty household for help for his ailing twin, Judith. She survives, but Hamnet (whose name is interchangeable with Hamlet) dies from the plague, and his family falls apart.

Shakespeare appears in the grief-stricken narrative, ‘all tinder and flint, sending out sparks to ignite and kindle’, but his wife Agnes is the beating heart of the novel.

Gifted with second sight, adept at herbal cures, she is her family’s anchor. Hamnet’s death unmoors her from all she knows and loves: ‘She, who can hear the dead, the unspoken, the unknown . . . she cannot find, cannot locate the spirit of her own child’.

Devastatingly good.

Set on a ruined plantation in the rural South, this lush, engrossing, haunting debut is the coming-of-age story of former slave Rue, whose world is upended in the chaotic aftermath of the American Civil War.

Rue is struggling with the legacy of her mother’s power — May Belle was a skilled midwife with arcane knowledge of cures and curses, a voodoo gift that set her apart.

Rue is reluctantly following her mother’s path, while keeping a secret which is vital to the protection of the emancipated, sequestered community, and involves Varnia, the daughter of the plantation owner. The ill-omened birth of strange baby Bean, a tide of sickness that fells the other children, and the arrival of a charismatic, wandering preacher, makes Rue dangerously vulnerable in the battle between old ways of living and new ways of believing as her community’s attitude to Rue slowly tilts from reluctant admiration to suspicions of witchery.

Juliet Bates studied art and art history and there is a delightful observational delicacy to her prose, a careful cataloguing of the ever-changing shades of the waves and the vivid red of the ‘clarty’ sand of Teesby, where the novel is set. It’s a quality that perfectly befits the two main characters — Ellen, who sees the world’s colours in a strange and unusual way, and her son Jack, who becomes a painter and an art teacher.

Theirs is a story of illness, estrangement and misunderstanding. Sectioned after a traumatic event at the beach, in 1931, Ellen spends most of her life in a mental hospital, while, during WWII, lost boy Jack tries to create ‘perfect scale models of bits of the world so that the real thing could be flattened’ at the same time as warring with memories of his mother, and her hopes of a reconciliation.

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