Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Sofie Laguna, Infinite splendours

With pandemic post-lockdown restrictions still in place, but not wanting yet another Zoom meeting, Minervans "pivoted" (to use the word of the day) to a late afternoon meeting in the park opposite our October host's home.  We enjoyed our savoury nibbles, wine and cake in the late afternoon sun, while still keeping to our tried-and-true bookgroup formula - chat for half an hour or so, book discussion for around an hour, followed by cake and chat for another half hour or so. 

Our book was Sofie Laguna's Infinite splendours, which tells the story of Lawrence who was, as a sensitive, imaginative ten-year-old, groomed and raped by his visiting uncle. What happens to Lawrence after this, how he traverses life as a damaged person, occupies the major part of the book. It's a tough, heart-in-throat book about, as Laguna says, the price paid when certain boundaries are crossed.

We started of course, with our ...

First impressions

Several of our first impressions aligned, with the following reactions recurring most often:

  • a bit repetitive, so longer than necessary
  • a tough, painful, disturbing read, "a bit of an ordeal", particularly given we've already done novels about intergenerational First Nations trauma, and poverty and alcoholism, this year
  • powerfully, beautifully, superbly written, including the writing about the mountain, nature and the landscape
A few of us were uncertain about the credibility of Lawrence's reaction to his experience. The book could read that his reaction is inevitable whereas evidence points to the contrary. Some of us weren't completely convinced by Lawrence's trajectory, though we were able to go with it.

Other impressions included:
  • had faith that Laguna would leave us with hope, but this time it felt a bit thin
  • liked that it put a human face on a child molester, showing that underneath there is often a suffering person who is damaged, but overall found it too much of a social messaging novel, and felt lectured at
  • thought the art was boring and predictable 
  • thought the best parts were the children interacting at the beginning
  • didn't believe the character or resolution
  • was drawn in by the lovely depiction of childhood, really liked the use of the mountain to evoke Lawrence, and found it so sad, but was entranced
  • found the characters, even minor ones, very well described
  • found the fear, foreboding visceral at times

Further discussion

Naturally we focused a lot on what happened to Lawrence, how and why it happened, and how nothing was done for him after the event. We discussed the suggestion in the novel that his mother and uncle (Reggie) had been molested, and that Reggie told Lawrence not to tell his mother because it would destroy her. We also noted that Lawrence's mother had likened Lawrence to Reggie, describing them both as clever. One member wondered whether the mother had been molested by her brother (Reggie) when young, but the rest of us didn't see this. We noted that Paul had been less interested in Uncle from the start. After the event, he suspected something had happened, asking Lawrence "what did he do to you?", but the traumatised Lawrence refused to answer. This was heartbreaking, given he had done all he could to protect Paul from being abused similarly. All these and more affected why the situation played out the way it did.

We considered that one of the reasons Laguna set this novel in the past was that it was a time when there was less awareness of abuse and of its potential longterm impact. It enabled her to more authentically tell a story about someone who went under the radar.

We discussed the writing of the main abuse scene, and how it was described from a 10-year-old's perspective. We agreed that Laguna conveyed well what happened without using language that Lawrence wouldn't know.

We talked a lot about Lawrence, and his apparent na├»vety as an adult. In many ways his development stopped when he was 10-years-old, which is not surprising. He changed from the sensitive, imaginative, curious little boy he had been to someone withdrawn, and prickly. He fluctuated between love and hate for his mother and Paul. 

We noted that Laguna quickly spans the years from 10 to 25, when the mother dies, and doesn't detail Lawrence's reaching puberty. Laguna uses various ideas to convey the effect of the trauma on Lawrence, one being his bowel-movement difficulty with visits to the outhouse being excruciating for him, and another being descriptions of his "two selves", which started at the time of the abuse: 

I felt myself dividing; there were two selves to choose from. One inside, one outside. (p. 152/3)

Much later, when the final crisis comes, Lawrence reflects

It was another moment on the way to the next, and I was both in it and outside of it. Yet was it not the same for all moments? One part engaged, another observing. Two selves. (p. 411)

One member suggested that, in some ways, 10-year-olds are the peak of human achievement. Expanding this, another member added that Lawrence reads in his art book that Constable had said he had seen all he needed to see for his paintings by the time he was 10 years old.
We discussed the ending a little, but got a bit waylaid by one member saying she didn't believe it at all. This resulted in a good discussion about art and artistic talent, and about Lawrence's skills and what style we thought he painted in, but we didn't discuss other aspects of the ending.

We also briefly discussed the large number of motifs in the novel: the bunker, Wallis (a mountain in the Grampians), the outhouse, the scarecrow, Robinson Crusoe, colours, Madame Butterfly, to name some. Were there too many? We all liked the role of Wallis, as something unchangeable/stable but also magnificent in Lawrence's life. We also felt that the bunker worked well as a place of safety for Lawrence, even if sometimes that safety meant hiding from himself rather than resolving his inner demons.

We talked about the title, which came from the artist Millet who said that "I see far more in the countryside than charm, I see infinite splendours." Lawrence spent his life trying to capture those splendours, and at the end his art, in a sense, achieves "eternity" (or "infinity") for him.
We talked also little about Paul. Some felt he'd been an excellent brother, while others felt he had been too cursory in his care. We liked Mrs Barry, who had recognised that Lawrence behaved like the men who had come home from the war (ie. traumatised) but, of course, she didn't know why.

Some members were concerned about some anachronisms (caused probably by editors being too young!):
  • Ten-year-old Lawrence would not say "f**k off" to his brother in 1953
  • The scarecrow's face was coloured with a marker which members felt didn't exist then (According to Wikipedia they were around, but would they have been prevalent in rural Victoria at the time?)
  • Reggie makes coffee which was not likely in a 1950s country home

A member referred us to other works on child abuse, Polish-Swiss psychologist Alice Miller's Thou shalt not be aware, and Andrew Bovell's play, When the rain stops falling.

No matter how much we liked or struggled with the book, we ended up having our usual highly engaged, wide-ranging and insightful discussion - but, we also agreed that we'd like to fit in a few lighter (though still meaty!) books next year!

And, some pics ... with thanks to the (absent) photographer

Present: 11 people

Friday, 1 October 2021

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Another zoom meeting during lockdown this month. We are getting more familiar with the technology but all of us still prefer to meet in person.  

Hamnet is the story of the wife and children of an unnamed playwright of the sixteenth century living in the small village of Stratford, Warwickshire, England. It concerns Agnes (pronounced in the French way Ar-nes) and her children, Hamnet and Judith who are young twins and their older sister Susanna. We hear about Agnes’ early life and her courtship with the future playwright and the daily life of the village people. The crux of the novel is the very sad death of Hamnet from the pestilence at the age of 11 and the reactions by his mother and sisters. 


Maggie O’Farrell is a prize winning UK author who has written 8 novels and the autobiography : I am, I am, I am.


All members enjoyed this novel and some even loved it and we were all very pleased to have read it.


First impressions:

  • It inspired me to look into Shakespeare’s early life by reading a book by John Bell (of Bell Shakespeare company fame) called On Shakespeare. I have visited Stratford and Ann Hathaway’s cottage, a short walk out of Stratford and it was enjoyable to remember the scenery in reading this novel.
  • I particularly appreciated the evocation of grief which was written so movingly. I have a few questions about this book though, so not totally won over by it.
  • I really wanted to read it.
  • I found it very moving, evocation of time showed that the author had researched the life of the villagers well. It was very dense at times and hard to penetrate the intensity but O’Farrell nailed it so well. The courtship scenes with Agnes and the playwright were good and the book was worthwhile.
  • Reading about the sixteenth century plague during our pandemic was amazingly pertinent and the book was an incredible feat of the imagination and research.
  • The grief struck me. I thought Agnes was a great character.
  • It was a relief to read after having read Shuggie Bain, last month’s novel. I admired the way the author expressed the tenderness and the emotions of the characters. I wondered about the language at times as it seemed too much. I skipped over some passages. I loved the structure going backwards and forwards in the story.
  •  Immersive novel, a little dense but with evocative and beautiful language. It was about love and motherhood and grief. I wondered why not write about Shakespeare’s wife? The novelist nailed it.
  • The portrayal of grief over the death of Hamnet was the ‘worst thing’. I felt that when the child died there was a loss of momentum in the second part. 
  • How did it get tied into the play of Hamlet? I am not clear on that aspect.
  • I was won over on the second page with the sentence “ the smell of his grandparents’ house is always the same : …’ I can remember experiencing a similar sensation as a child. I loved all the details of the way people lived, it was fabulous detail. Including talking about the menstrual rags that had to be counted by the older women.
  • I liked the structure of the child dying and the romance being interwoven through different time frames.
  • I was lost on the mystical ‘stuff’. Hamlet is nothing like Hamnet. (It was pointed out that Shakespeare in the novel trained the actor to have similar mannerisms to his son.) The book is not about Hamlet or Hamnet. It is about motherhood and Agnes.
  • I found it very readable and felt I got into the 16th century household. It was a poignant story and it starts off with a lot about emotion. Reminded me of The year of wonders by Geraldine Brooks. I found the story of the flea amazing, coming from Venice or in other stories from the Black sea.




Does the structure work ? 

 One member liked the weaving in and out of the stories and it seemed to her like two curves meeting at the end. The novelist pulls it off. It is not over-complicated and we enjoyed the dual storyline.


Why did O’Farrell write the book about this death? 

Would it have had the same impact if it had just been chronological? We decided that the impact and tension would be harder to achieve with a different structure. The death takes such a short time to describe whereas the whole novel is over many years – in fact the whole of Agnes’ life up to that point. It engaged us. It also concentrated the story around Hamnet rather than him being a minor character. It portrays an intense look at Hamnet and his environment. It also shows Agnes’ undoing. Agnes is a strong character so her grief is like a ‘well’ around which her story is told. 


Our next topic of discussion was about the different portrayal of Shakespeare’s wife shown in this book from the norm in popular culture such as in the English program Upstart Crow. In this comedy, the wife is a dullard not the strong woman we read about in Hamnet. One member mentioned that she particularly liked that O’Farrell picked up on Germaine Greer’s interpretation of Ann Hathaway. Does O’Farrell want to rewrite history?  


Another member discussed the snippets of the relationship between Agnes and her husband and how she saw their life together and apart. When he came home from London it took a while for them to become close again. This lead to a short discussion on how many men have to work away from home for long periods even in the 20th and 21st centuries.


We also discussed that many women of the time were healers. It was fascinating that Agnes wanted to give proper medicine to Judith whereas the so-called doctor in his scary mask wanted to put a dried toad on the stomach of the child. (p. 148). Witches dealt in toads supposedly so was it ironic that the doctor did too?


How does the death and Hamnet relate to Hamlet?  

This question is difficult. One member suggested that the quotation on a separate page and at the beginning of the second part of the book (page 255) from the play Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 2) quoted by O’Farrell was a clue. The quote is : 

‘I am dead’ (line 330)/’Thou livest ;’ (line 331) … ‘draw thy breath in pain,’ (line 340)/’to tell my story’ (line 341).   


Agnes sees the father and son characters in the play where the father is a ghost and the son is alive. The play relates to the son – has Shakespeare given life to his boy? Is that too big a stretch ? 


Did Hamnet's death have an effect on Shakespeare’s plays?

Did it bring a greater understanding of grief – we decided it had a huge impact on the way he saw the world. He wrote his major tragedies after Hamnet's death.  


He was inspired or needed to express something to evoke his son. However, Hamlet is not about Hamnet. Is it understandable that Shakespeare wrote the comedy Merry Wives of Windsor soon after the death, as it shows he couldn’t cope ? 


How do you live with grief? 

Agnes’ grief was extreme which lead to a sense of unreality. She lost her gifts to heal and tell the future. This section of the novel was the most moving, and as mothers we all felt for her. Some members thought that the novel lost a bit of tension in this last part as you felt drained and exhausted by reading it. It was a visceral feeling one member commented.


The birth of Susanna in the woods raised some interest. We also noted that Agnes wasn’t allowed to do it again. A nice touch was the planting of the Rowan Tree at the backdoor of ‘her’ house. The rowan tree is the tree of life. It symbolises courage and wisdom. Agnes learnt about it from her the Celtic tradition and her Mother. One member noted that the tree symbolises her mother's presence for Agnes.


We liked that Shakespeare appeared less knowledgeable about herbs than Agnes and wondered whether he wrote about them. In the famous witches scene in Macbeth it is toads in the cauldron. It is a nice idea that Agnes could teach him something. (John Bell says that Shakespeare talks more about herbs and flowers in his plays than any other playwright he knows.)  


What about the psychic business – pressing of the hand and thumb? 

Could Agnes foretell things? It was part of her early identity. Or was it something that O’Farrell thought appropriate for this character? Agnes was an observer and listener and had a sense of how people understand the world so maybe that helps to explains her ‘gift’. She was also intuitive. One member has faith in people being intelligent.  Also often illiterate folk have excellent memories as did Agnes for all her herbs and their names and uses.  Albert Facey is an excellent example of a person with this gift.


Another member reported on a book by William Dalrymple called Nine lives,  about a group of Indian storytellers who had these gifts.  


Other characters were discussed briefly. We all liked the lovely Bartholomew, Agnes’ brother. Such a good man. Some of the older women were not so pleasant, particularly Joan, Agnes’ stepmother. 


Judith, Agnes’ younger daughter was like her mother, not like her more business-oriented father and sister. She didn’t want to learn from Hamnet who tried to teach her. She wasn’t interested in learning to read and write but she was an observer and intelligent nevertheless. Her sister, Susanna, thought she was useless.


John, Shakespeare’s father thought Will was useless as did Agnes’ family. We all noticed the description of John's face, when he thought he was getting a good deal by his son marrying a girl who had a reasonable dowry.


We thought O’Farrell handled the difficulty of having such a famous character in the novel extremely cleverly. He is never mentioned by name and had very little to say. She made it about Hamnet and Agnes. History made it easy too as there are no letters to clarify.


Some members particularly liked the way the author handled the first sex scene. It was fascinating and showed true feeling.


Various other scenes attracted attention including the description of Mary sewing, (p. 199) and the references to knot gardens. 


We were pleased that the couple reconciles at the end of the novel when Agnes finally realises that Will did grieve for his son for many years just as she had. One member recommended seeing the movie called All is true. (This is available through a streaming service).


We thought life for everyday women of the time was pretty busy in the household having to do so much, just to eat and live. 


Present : 10 members