Six Degrees of Separation: from Hamnet to How to be Both

The first Saturday of January came too soon for me. 2021 started slowly and I’m only gradually emerging from the brain hibernation I’ve been experiencing for the past couple of weeks. But here I am for Six Degrees of Separation. Can I sustain a chain a month for the meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best for another year? This month, we’re starting with a book I read last year, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.

Autocorrect keeps wanting to change Hamnet to Hamlet. Which is fair enough. The book is a supposition about how Shakespeare’s play about the Prince of Denmark came to be written. O’Farrell supposes it has something to do with the early death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, as a means of expressing his grief. The novel explores the relationship between Shakespeare and Anne (here rendered as Agnes) Hathaway and its unravelling as Shakespeare spends more time in London and through the aftermath of Hamnet’s death.

Hamnet is alive for part of the book, and then very much dead. Another dead son who doesn’t quite make it to being fully dead is Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln. We encounter Willie in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. After Willie dies, he enters the Bardo, a sort of limbo found in Tibetan Buddhism where people linger between life and death. How long they’re there depends on how old they were when they died and how they had lived their life. In this novel, the Bardo is a pause that allows Saunders to imagine Abraham Lincoln’s grief.

Max Porter examines the nature of grief in his novel about a family that loses its mother. Grief is the Thing With Feathers riffs on Ted Hughes’ magnificent poem Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. In Porter’s book, grief manifests itself as an uncouth crow, an unhinged invader of the home who pecks away at the residents until they are done grieving. But are we ever really done grieving?

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri suggests not. One of the central characters in the novel, Kazu, is grieving the loss of his son, whom he feels he never properly knew because of circumstances around earning a living that led to him moving away from his family. His grief ultimately opens the door to homelessness for Kazu.

Banana Yoshimoto’s book Kitchen is a novella that also considers the impact of grief on a person’s life. In this case, Mikage is grieving the loss of her grandmother, whom she had been caring for, when a college friend invites her to move in with him and his mother. Mikage goes through a number of changes over the course of this short book, realising that her grief means putting certain things in her life on pause as she adjusts to a new way of being.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass is a book about the all consuming nature of caring for someone who is dying and feeling emptied by grief on their death. The narrator is a researcher in the history of science, and she uses the scientific events she is investigating as a way to make sense of her grief, to work out who she is and whether she still wants to be that person.

One of my favourite books on this subject of loss, grief and working out who you are supposed to be is Ali Smith’s How to be Both. This was the first novel I ever read by Smith, and it started my love affair with her writing. One of the things that struck me about it was the distinction Smith made between the main character who existed before her mother’s death and the one who existed after it. I read it when I was still mourning the loss of my mum and took great comfort from its message that we are who we are and can be who we need to be in any given moment, and nobody has the right to tell us otherwise.

Each of the books I’ve chosen for this month’s chain focuses on the transformative power of grief and the different ways in which people process it. There are lost sons, lost mothers and lost grandmothers. Each book holds an emotional intelligence about grief that anyone experiencing loss and mourning would benefit from. They are all books, too, that make me very glad, despite the rumours from certain literati novelists who seem to be weirdly fragile about the publication of their own novels, that the novel isn’t dead.

Would you follow the same path that I chose, or does Hamnet suggest other things to you? Why not visit Kate’s blog to find out what books other people have chosen?

4 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from Hamnet to How to be Both

  1. That is an interesting, but also depressing chain. In my chain the characters face difficult circumstances and decisions, but it‘s not (always) quite so grievious.

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    1. That’s true of the characters in both our book selections, I think, just the ones in mine (except for one) are positively transformed by the death of a loved one, whereas the characters in your chain survive external challenges. Maybe I unconsciously focused on the darkness of grief in my chain because I’m such a Negative Nelly at the moment. Remembering the positivity I found in these books, though, helped me feel less embattled. Sorry that I bummed you out!

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  2. The only one from your chain that I’ve read – and enjoyed – is ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’. As your previous commenter remarks, life is currently challenging. Books about grief, however positively they end are simply not tenable for me at the moment. But this is an interesting selection, and in other times, I’d definitely look at some of your choices, maybe staring with Ali Smith.

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