It’s the first Saturday of the month (and of the new year) which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.
This month we are beginning with Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I read this book last year and although I thought the writing was beautiful, I didn’t love it as much as most other people seem to have done. It’s a great book to start this month’s chain with, though, because there are so many possible options for the first link!
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.
Shakespeare is not named in Hamnet; he is always referred to as ‘the husband’ or ‘the father’, which puts the focus on Agnes and their children. The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan (1) does use Shakespeare’s name, as well as the more commonly used Anne Hathaway in place of Agnes, but it also focuses on Shakespeare as a husband and father and is written largely from his wife’s perspective.
Another book I’ve read with a title beginning ‘The Secret Life of’ is The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (2), a biography of one of my favourite Victorian authors. The writer of the biography, William M. Clarke, was married to Collins’ great-granddaughter, which gave him access to personal information about Collins’ private life, family relationships and romantic entanglements, and these things form the basis of the book. However, I found the writing style quite dry and I would also have preferred more discussion and analysis of Collins’ work as well as his life.
Next, I’m linking to a book by Wilkie Collins himself: The Frozen Deep (3), not one of his better known books but still one that I enjoyed reading. It’s a short one – a novella, really – but still an entertaining and compelling story, inspired by reports of Sir John Franklin’s famously doomed 1845 voyage to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage during which the ships became icebound and the members of the expedition disappeared.
Clare Carson’s historical novel The Canary Keeper (4) is set just a few years after the Franklin Expedition. The novel follows Birdie Quinn, a young woman who finds herself a suspect in a murder case, as she travels to the Orkney Islands to try to identify the real killer and clear her name. As she investigates, she discovers some fascinating links between the murder and the expedition.
I can only think of one other novel I’ve read set in Orkney and that is King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett (5), a very different kind of story from The Canary Keeper and taking place many centuries earlier! This beautifully written and thoroughly researched novel is based around the theory that Macbeth, the historical King of Alba, and Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, were the same person.
This, of course, leads me to Macbeth by William Shakespeare (6) and so brings the chain full circle! It’s not often that I manage to do that, so I’m pleased to have achieved it with my first chain of the year.
And that’s this month’s Six Degrees of Separation. My links included Shakespeare, secret lives, Wilkie Collins, the Franklin Expedition, Orkney and Thorfinn/Macbeth.
In February we will be starting with Redhead By the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.