An ambitious novel about Shakespeare's wife and son from Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell.
William Shakespeare had three children with his wife, Anne (or Agnes, if you go by her father's will) Hathaway. Susanna was born in 1583, followed by the twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585. Hamnet tragically died at the age of eleven. His cause of death remains unknown. There has been much scholarly speculation about the significance of Shakespeare naming his most famous play Hamlet, as both names were interchangeable in Elizabethan times.
Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell has set herself the ambitious task of trying to recreate Shakespeare's family life and somehow explain his seemingly unorthodox marriage arrangements. The novel has two timelines, moving back and forth between the early 1580s, when Shakespeare was courting Anne Hathaway and 1596, the year Hamnet died. O'Farrell portrays Anne (named Agnes throughout) as a bit of a wild nature woman, making her own medicines and working in her village as a healer of sorts. Shakespeare (he is never named, only referred to as either husband or father) is smitten with the unusual Agnes, someone with an uncanny connection to the natural world.
The couple marry and Agnes soon realises that her husband has a mysterious inner life, a restlessness that seeks the wider world. She urges him to move to London, assuring him that she and the children will follow later. That never happens, although Agnes's husband goes on to have a successful career in the theatre. When tragedy strikes, and Hamnet is seriously ill, the boy's father rushes back from London to see his dying boy.
O'Farrell's novel is primarily about grief and motherhood. Shakespeare appears as a half-formed character, and there is even less of Hamnet. The story centres for the most part around Agnes, her inner life, how she copes with grief and her husband's long stays away from home. For that alone, it makes for an affecting and absorbing novel. The scenes depicting the laying out of Hamnet's body are incredibly moving and the myriad botanical references paint an illuminating picture of Elizabethan rural life, with its mixture of natural science and superstition.
How readers appreciate this novel will depend on how they warm to O'Farrell's depiction of the Shakespeares' married life. William is portrayed as rather callous and inconsiderate of his wife's feelings, someone who puts career ahead of family. Agnes and William seem almost strangers to each other. The historical record shows that Shakespeare spent large parts of the year in London, and the novelist has obviously taken this to mean that as a married couple the Shakespeares weren't close and may indeed have been hostile to each other. Some readers may see this reading of their relationship as lacking in imagination, or too quick to jump to easy assumptions.
An engaging, heartbreaking novel about a mother's loss, but a disappointing portrayal of Shakespeare's marriage.
Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell. Published by Tinder Press. $32.99
A young girl overcomes some dark secrets from her past.
12-year-old Bea has a lot going on in her life. Her parents have separated and her Dad has come out as gay. It’s all good, though. He’s going to marry the love of his life, Jesse, whom Bea really likes. The best part of the impending marriage is the fact that Bea is going to get a sister. Jesse has a daughter, Sonia, who lives with her Mum in another state, but has come to visit. Once their Dads are married, they’ll be real sisters.
The future should be all rosy for Bea, but she has done some things in her past that she’s not proud of. She also has a few anger management issues and can often find life frustrating. One particular incident from her past continues to chip away at her soul.
There is much to enjoy in this story about the pains of growing and the shameful mistakes we make along the way. Author Rebecca Stead has a knack for capturing the troubled yet endearing voice of a young girl trying to navigate the constant challenges of school and family. Bea is a totally believable character and very likable, despite her faults. Readers will warm to her socially awkward ways and enjoy being taken along on her journey. Rebecca Stead also leavens the story with a lot of humour. Bea can be witty and deadpan, especially in her exchanges with her therapist, Miriam. These are some of the funniest scenes in the book.
A sweet story for young readers that deals with the dark subjects of shame and guilt. In Rebecca Stead’s capable hands these trials become a way to personal growth and ultimately something to celebrate.
The List of Things that Will Not Change, by Rebecca Stead. Published by Text. $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A highly readable history of modern China that will answer many questions about the country's development and its current political challenges.
Jonathan Fenby's sweeping history of China covers the modern period from 1850 right up to today, finishing with Xi Jinping (updated in 2019 for the third edition). The book starts by chronicling the last days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which featured prominent figures such as the Empress Dowager Cixi who was the power behind the throne for close to five decades.
Upon the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the country was run by a disparate group of warlords until civil war broke out between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and Mao Zedong's Communists. In 1949, the People's Republic of China was declared. Mao's rule, from 1949 to 1976, would see some of the worst crimes against humanity, with millions killed due to unnecessary famine and ideological warfare. Mao's Cultural Revolution tipped China into a veritable state of madness. Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping would start to open up the country's economy and herald a new era of rising wealth. Despite liberalising trade and lifting living standards, politically China remains authoritarian. Many Western thinkers have presumed that China would follow the West into democratic government due to its embrace of capitalism, but this hasn't happened.
China's last 170 years have been turbulent, violent and full of terrible suffering for its people. The humiliations it suffered at the hands of the Japanese and Western powers has left its indelible mark on the nation's psyche. Descriptions of the Nanking Massacre are beyond horrific. Yet despite many decades of tragedy, China has managed to rise and become a formidable global power.
One of the main questions the book raises is the contradiction between China's liberalised economy, which has brought much wealth, and it's autocratic government, with more and more power concentrated in the hands of Xi Jinping. This contradiction is causing much tension in Chinese society and it remains to be seen whether this is sustainable. Will public unrest breakout and destablise the country, or will China retain its repressive government?
For anyone looking for a bracing recent history of China, Jonathan Fenby's brilliant book won't disappoint.
The Penguin History of Modern China, by Jonathan Fenby. Published by Penguin. $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Debut novelist Vivian Pham waves her magic wand over the Western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, with stunning results.
Sixteen-year-old Vincent Tran is just out of juvenile detention, having finished a two-year stint. Fit, muscled and tattooed, he exudes a roguish glamour. On his return to Cabramatta, he is pushed by friends along the street in a Woolworths trolley, a king on his royal litter. Everyone stares in wonder: what mayhem will he unleash next? Looking on from her bedroom window is Sonny Vuong. She, too, is mesmerised by Vincent. At last, she thinks, Cabramatta can wake from its long slumber. With Vincent back, the suburb is alive again.
Sonny wonders what the return of Vince will mean for her. The two have a previous history. They are neighbours and played together as children. But the two year stint in detention has meant they have grown somewhat apart. Much has happened in between. Can they now re-discover each other and build a new friendship?
First time author Vivian Pham started writing The Coconut Children as part of a writer's workshop when she was sixteen. The author's youth apart, this is quite an astonishing debut. Set in the southwestern Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, Pham turns struggling suburbia, with its dingy shopping plazas, seedy bottleshops and down-at-heel op-shops into a glittering Emerald City. In one passage she writes that the streets are bathed in the “ceremonial light of summertime.” The residents of Cabramatta may be on struggle street, haunted by the tragic dislocations of a refugee past, but they are also a charmed people, radiating mystery and magic. Pham makes her characters soar above their poor circumstances.
Vivian Pham's style is often hypnotic and spellbinding, using metaphors and imagery of startling originality. Her descriptions are also delightfully trippy, consistently surprising the reader with their spontaneous invention. It's the sort of inspired writing that can't be learnt; one must have a true vision.
If that makes The Coconut Children sound densely poetic and ethereal, it should be noted that there is a strong current of humour that runs through the book. Pham has a keen sense of irony, evident on almost every page. It's actually a very funny book, reminiscent of the sly wit of writers like Carson McCullers and Jean Genet.
An impressive debut and someone to definitely watch in the future.
The Coconut Children, by Vivian Pham. Published by Vintage. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A 1960s classic of British working-class life.
In 1959, a young Nell Dunn moved to the working-class district of Battersea and took a job in a local sweet factory. Although not of the proletariat herself, she soon made friends and became emotionally attached to the area. Her debut collection of short stories, Up The Junction, is a series of sketches of friends, characters and people she knew.
Three women form the book's core – Lily, the narrator, and her friends Rube and Sylvie. They appear in all the stories, giving Up The Junction a sense of cohesion and continuity, somewhere between a short novel and a series of connected vignettes. The stories cover a range of hardscrabble situations: backyard abortions, court appearances for minor crimes, fast young men involved in motorbike accidents, nights out at the pub, prison visits and chancey, usually loveless sex. The girls experience misfortune and come off second best in their sexual encounters, but remain philosophical, enduring dodgy medical procedures and ill treatment from lovers with equanimity and humour.
What makes these stories stand out is the way Dunn captures gritty street dialogue without moralising. Dunn sets down on the page coarse, racist and sexist comments that would otherwise beg for a mitigating commentary, but refuses to judge. She lays her characters starkly before the reader and insists they be taken as they are. We are not to consider ourselves above or below them. They just are.
Up the Junction remains a fascinating document of the times and a piece of exceptionally controlled writing. Dunn stands back coolly and doesn't allow her emotions to get in the way of capturing a true, dignified portrait of a particular milieu she came to know intimately.
Up The Junction, by Nell Dunn. Published by Virago Classics. $21.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An exemplar of the modern short story writes about her troubled mother and complicated relationships with men.
Lorrie Moore is an American novelist and essayist. She is best known for her short stories. Self Help was her first collection, published in 1985.
In the nine stories presented here, Moore addresses personal themes. There are bad relationships, marriages on the rocks and affairs with married men. Several stories deal with the main character's mother, coping with cancer diagnosis and mental illness. It seems pretty clear that Moore must have had a difficult relationship with her mother, as long suffering mothers are returned to again and again. One tongue-in-cheek story, “How to Become a Writer”, is full of sardonic advice on how to succeed in a literary career.
The tone of Lorrie Moore's stories is often witty and droll, with plenty of clever wordplay. They are also ironic and self-conscious, almost self-referential as the text gives itself directions on what to do and think, almost like an emotional laundry list. For example:
Ask Hilda if she will go to lunch with you. Over Reuben sandwiches ask her if she's ever had an affair with a married man. As she attempts, mid bite, to complete the choreography of her chomp, Russian dressing spurts out onto her hand.
Moore's short fictions are modernist in style, fractured and leaning heavily on one perspective, that of the female writer. They jerkily jump back and forth in time (one story paces back, year by year in a descending chronology, producing a wonderfully discombobulating effect), eschewing a linear narrative. These are stories in which you have to trust the direction the writer is taking you in.
Unusual yet entertaining, the short stories of Lorrie Moore offer a unique experience and perspective.
Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore. Published by Faber. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Social historian Hallie Rubenhold presents the harrowing biographies of the Jack the Ripper victims.
The five victims of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – are often assumed to have been prostitutes. This assumption, stubbornly in place for 130 years, has allowed a terrible misogyny to go unchecked. These women it has long been thought were “just prostitutes” who had put themselves in harm's way and were therefore in some way the authors of their own misfortune. While no one deserved to be brutally murdered, that it happened to these women was somehow considered to be understandable.
Social historian Hallie Rubenhold has done a stunning job in getting to the truth of the matter. Researching the lives, social milieu and economic circumstances of “the five” she has created nuanced portraits of Victorian women and the brutal, unforgiving society they had to navigate. It's a story of alcoholism, domestic violence, economic exploitation, sex trafficking, hard labour in workhouses and endless childbearing. Women had only one career option, marriage, which mainly involved looking after a husband and an ever growing brood of children, often on a limited income.
Poverty was the main reason Mary Ann, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane were targets of Jack the Ripper. Most had their throats slit while they were sleeping rough on the streets. One one of the women, Mary Jane, worked professionally as a sex worker. Elizabeth Stride, like many poor and destitute women, reluctantly performed some sex work to keep her head above water, but most likely would not have identified as a prostitute. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes were not prostitutes.
Most of the women had problems with alcohol, some cases severe. The most bracing parts of the book describe some of London's most notorious quarters, with their desperate poverty. Women who lost a male partner or fled an abusive husband could find themselves soon sinking fast, living in crime riddled neighbourhoods and rubbing shoulders with all sorts of unsavoury types. The only other option besides living rough on the streets was to enter the workhouse, often considered a fate worse than death, with its abuses and punitive regimes.
The Five demonstrates how much popular thinking still likes to blame the victim. Hallie Rubenhold redresses this error, bringing to light the many injustices against women of the Victorian era.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold. Black Swan. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A gorgeous romp through the French Belle Epoque.
Award winning novelist Julian Barnes starts his new work of non-fiction with three men on a shopping trip in London. The year is 1885. The three men are all French - Prince de Polignac, Count de Montesquiou-Fezensac and famed gynaecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi. When Barnes discovered the sumptuous John Singer Sargent portrait of Pozzi, Dr. Pozzi at Home, he was inspired to trace the doctor and his milieu.
For the most part, The Man in the Red Coast is a dizzying, kaleidoscopic ride through the French Belle Epoque. It's an age of outsized egos, quick tempers, frequent bitchiness, aristocratic entitlement and easy wealth. Friendships play out like complex chessboard manoeuvres, and when associations sour and allies turn, aggrieved parties slander each other through the press. All the big names of the age walk regularly through these pages – Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Zola, Guy De Maupassant, Colette. Plus lesser known characters, such as the overcooked dandy Jean Lorrain and gossip mongers, the Goncourt brothers.
Of the three men introduced on the 1885 shopping trip, it is Montesquiou and Pozzi who get all the attention. (Prince de Polignac makes only minor appearances. He marries a lesbian heiress, and being homosexual himself, lives pretty much happily ever after.) Dilettante and aesthete Montesquiou rubs shoulders with the great and rich of the age, and will appear as a character in many fictional works, most notably in Joris-Karl Huysmans' À rebours and Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. He's a pretty unsavoury character – vain, insecure, frivolous and mean. In the one endeavour where he tried to make himself useful – writing – he failed. Not many people read Montesquiou in his day, and less do now.
The bright light of the book, surrounded as he is by so much decadence and sickly self-indulgence, is the gynaecologist Samuel Pozzi. He was progressive in his thinking, cultured, well educated, a collector of beautiful things, but also a useful person. He worked at the forefront of medical science, was instrumental in spearheading new procedures and took great interest in the personal well being – the comfort and ease – of his patients. By most accounts, an all round nice guy. (His predilection for seducing patients, however, would get him struck off the medical register if he were practicing today.)
An education in the Belle Epoque and a lively entertainment (Barnes obviously loves the period and relishes its eccentric cast of egomaniacs), The Man in the Red Coat is a tonic and a delight.
The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes. Jonathan Cape. $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An amazing book of facts and figures about ants.
Who would have thought that ants could be so much fun? In this new book from Philip Bunting (Koalas Eat Gumleaves, Kookaburras Love to Laugh) we learn all sorts of fascinating facts and figures about the humble ant. Did you know there are 10 quadrillion ants? Amazing! And that ants communicate by smell? That's right. Ants talk to each other through an “odorous alphabet of smells.” Ants organise themselves in complex colonies where everyone has a special job to do, either laying eggs, gathering food or doing housework. They are also eco-friendly, recycling nutrients from plants and trees to create richer soil. And after a busy spell of work, ants like to take a powernap before starting all over again.
The Wonderful Wisdom of Ants presents all this information with bright, lively illustrations and easy-to-follow graphics. There are quite a few laughs in the text, too. One ant holds its new born and says “I larva you”. The book is tied up with a neat message about the importance of caring for the environment, family and community.
Entertaining and educational, The Wonderful Wisdom of Ants will leave you in a cheerful mood.
4+ years old
The Wonderful Wisdom of Ants, by Philip Bunting. Omnibus Books. $17.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Jonathan Safran Foer explains the impact of diet on the environment.
Changes in diet may well be one of the most difficult requirements for reducing our carbon footprint. As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer discusses in his new book, We Are the Weather, emissions from livestock pose an enormous danger to the planet. Not only does livestock create methane and other emissions, but land cleared for grazing removes trees and foliage that would usually sequester carbon. A double hit to the environment. Some researchers even suggest that if the world went on a plant-based diet this would quickly and dramatically reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
No doubt this is all daunting to consider. Foer doesn't preach or thunder from on high about the need to eat more plants, and confesses to his lapses as a vegetarian. Indeed, for the most part, We Are the Weather addresses the psychology of inaction and draws parallels with historical examples of looming catastrophes that were ignored.
We Are the Weather is a book of ethical conundrums, a personal quest to find the right way to live. Melancholy reading for sure, sometimes confronting, yet searingly honest about our collective failure to act and what needs to be done.
We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Published by Hamish Hamilton. $35
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books