Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 2, 2021

Six Degrees of Separation: from Hamnet to….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.  Which (as predicted) I did not find time to read during the festive season.

But I have read something else by Maggie O’Farrell: her debut novel After You’d Gone (2000) which I read and really liked the following year in 2001 (so, before this blog).  And this long interval between reading her debut and buying her prize winning novel makes me wonder, how did I miss all her other books over two decades?  Were they not marketed here in Australia?  Was I too busy doing other things to notice?  I see from a brisk search at my libraries that they don’t have her back titles, so maybe it’s not just me.  But it feels like a member of my family has been having babies and I was the last to know.

Anyway, After You’d Gone is the story of a woman in a coma, and it says something about the power of O’Farrell’s writing that I can still remember it now.  It puts me in mind of Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide in the way that it captures a moment that none of us would ever want to confront.

It is a common belief that people revisit their whole life in their last moments… I’ll take a good while to die if it’s true, because I’ve been writing my memoirs during Lockdown (for The Offspring, not for any publishing ambition) and I’m still only up to being six years old.  This process has reinforced for me how much real authors condense and sift their memoirs, though I did hear recently about a three-volume memoir in the marketplace.  And then there’s Knaussgaard of course.  Goodness me, I loathed that book.  So self-indulgent, so cruel to the people in his life.

Since I did not bother with the rest of Knausaard’s ramblings, I do not know who translated them, but Don Bartlett who translated the interminable A Death in the Family deserves a medal, I reckon. He’s a very fine translator who also translates Per Petterson’s exquisite books, and he was also the translator of The Children by Ida Jesse, which was a superb book.

Children and childhood are endlessly fascinating topics for authors, and I’ve read many from The Children, by Charlotte Wood to Children of the Arbat, by Anatoli Rybakov, translated by Harold Shukman. But my favourite book woven around this subject is Amy’s Children, by Olga Masters. Masters was a brilliant author who died too young, but where she excelled was that although she wrote about domestic lives, she exposed the structural reasons for poverty and lack of opportunity.  I quoted the opening lines in my review:

Ted Fowler left his wife Amy and the children when the youngest, another girl, was a few weeks old.

The infant was sickly.  The Great Depression was in a much more robust state.  Ted told Amy he was going to walk south to Eden where there was reported to be work on fishing boats.

Ted and Amy had been married for only three years.

The first child was born three months after the wedding.  Eighteen months later there was another and fifteen months after that a third. (p1)

So much conveyed in such few short lines and such simple, delicate prose.

When I wrote my review, Amy’s Children was long out of print but now there is a Text Classics edition.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can get a copy: the Text website (viewed 2/1/21) is closed for orders because of Covid, they say.  I hate to think of the people out of work because of this. But maybe your favourite indie bookshop has stock.

I was hoping that Text Classics would be a source for either Barbara Hanrahan or Eleanor Dark who are firming as my choice for a focus this year.  I have four Hanrahans on the TBR and only one by Dark, but there are four of hers available print on demand at A&U’s House of Books.  I am keen to read Prelude to Christopher, endorsed as a terribly beautiful book by no less a person than Miles Franklin.

Next month’s starter book is Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Redhead By the Side of the Road.  I won’t have read it, I’ll still be playing catch-up with Hamnet.  And a million other things.

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)


  1. Wonderful chain. Yes, I know the feeling of losing track of an author. It happened with me with Jessica Brockmole. I read her debut and then… But I’m trying to fix that now. Anyway, you really should read more of O’Farrell. Until this book, my favorite of hers was The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Marvelous! Here’s my chain


    • Ha, I think I’d better read Hamnet first, and then look around for what’s available!
      off now to look at your chain…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved some of the insights you share in this chain Lisa, including writing your memoir doing Lockdown (though I think I did already know this. I must say, I’m impressed that you’ve only got to 6 years old. I reckon I’d get to 6 in about two pages! I just don’t remember enough detail to write my memoirs, for family or anyone else for that matter. Does it all start coming back when you start writing?)

    I don’t necessarily loathe memoirs that are unkind to others, but I certainly feel badly for those maligned. And, I could never ever be cruel like that myself.


    • Ah well, I have a whole other life that I never share online! But I will share that by the time I was six I had had six different addresses plus two houses that I stayed at for short periods of time and that was all before we left England. I remember all but one of these houses, the one I was born in. My mother was amazed that I could describe the layout of these houses in good detail, but LOL I have spared my potential reader the tedium of reading about that!
      The reason I’m doing this is because so many people go on and on about family history and yet leave nothing of themselves for their own children. I have had a very interesting life, and have lived through some remarkable events both personal and public. Whether I ever get to writing about them, given my snail’s pace so far remains to be seen…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I l’d lived in four houses in three towns by the time I was 6, but then didn’t move again until I was 11. I don’t think my life was as exciting as yours. I remember the last house very well and bits of no’s. 2 and 3.

        You are right about capturing your family history. My brother did incomplete oral histories with both our parents, and I found fragments of Mum’s story on her computer after she died. But it doesn’t go very far unfortunately. I did ask her questions in her last weeks and made notes on my phone/iPad so I have that too. But I wish I had more of course!


        • My point is that *your* children will be saying the same thing unless you do it for them…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, I suppose they will… I hadn’t thought of that, still being focused on my parents, but you’re right. Oh well, I’ll think about it…

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I am unfamiliar with the books you mention (other than O’Farrell’s) but I share your concern about the small publishers. Having worked in publishing for 17 years, I can tell you that even the large ones don’t usually have money to spare. A lot of my friends in the industry got laid off and are worried that (in their 50s and 60s) they might never get another job. I know I bought more books during the last 9 months than I needed or really could afford because I wanted to help. Also, I really like buying books even when there are hundreds of unread books in this house!

    I had a project for graduate school last summer on Henry Hobson Richardson and my friend thought I was researching Henry Handel Richardson. Our emails crossed and baffled each other. I had not heard of hers, she had not heard of mine. I am now more curious about Ethel and wonder if I should start reading her – although cannot visit her grave as I did with H. Hobson R, the noted architect.


    • It was Erasmus who said, When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes, and I think that never did this apply more than during this past year when readers worldwide rallied as best they could to support the industry they love.
      And yes, H. Ethel R. – do not hesitate! You’d never know it from this blog because I read her books and fell in love with them decades before I kept even a reading journal, so there is no review here of her masterpiece trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. But it’s wonderful:)


  4. Great chain, Lisa. I’m not an O’Farrell fan even though I loved After You’d Gone and still recall elements of it 20 years later! But she is marketed to death in the UK and the two others I have read by her were disappointing and I just don’t get the fuss over her. I was almost prepared to give Hamnet a go because I’ve seen such positive reviews of it by bloggers I trust but then I saw a really bad one today that mentioned a lot of things I don’t like about O’Farrell’s style so now I’m in two minds again. Maybe I’ll just borrow it from the library.


    • So I should not be berating myself about her backlist?!
      Well, that could be a good thing…


      • IMHO, no, but maybe I just read the wrong books in her backlist. (I do have a memoir she wrote that I should read at some point, but I’m tentative because I expect I will be disappointed.)


        • Sometimes that’s the best way to read a book, then the book exceeds your expectations.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Great chain – Olga Masters sounds like an interesting writer.


    • Her books are wonderful: she was a late bloomer because she had seven children to raise, and then she died young. But what we have is brilliant.


  6. Glad to hear your doing Olga Masters and Eleanor Dark as I have a few of their books. I particularly like Olga Masters and will reread Amy’s Children. Have bypassed Maggie O’Farrel so far but have The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox which I never finished. Maybe I should pick it up again.
    Barbara Hanrahan left us too early and a great loss to the writing community.
    Your energy and commitment Lisa is an inspiration and now the memoir too. I’m in awe.


    • Thanks, Fay, I’m looking forward to doing it all over again in 2021.

      (But the memoir is only for The Offspring. It’s never going to see the light of day for anyone else)


  7. I also have the sense that O’Farrell’s books aren’t heavily marketed in Australia – I’ve read one and have another in my TBR stack but hard pushed to name what I understand is an extensive catalogue of work.

    And you know I have a soft-spot for Amy’s Children? (It was my Year 12 text, and I still have my original copy with annotations).


    • There are some books that never lose their power to move me, and Amy’s Children is one of them. But I have only one of her novels to track down now, and that’s A Long Time Dying (connected short stories, I think) plus I have her Collected Stories on the TBR, so from a Completist PoV, I’m nearly there.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I saw Kim’s comment on the fact she’s not a great fan of O’Farrell. It could well be a case of the books she’s read not being the author’s strongest. O’Farrell does have some “just OK’ books but they are not all like that fortunately, I loved the very first one I read by her – The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.


    • Ah true, of course, and sometimes it’s just a matter of taste. It’s sad that so many of us began our reading lives before they invented blogging for us, so we haven’t shared these treasures from our reading pasts.
      I used to think that this didn’t matter because I used to follow litbloggers who were much younger than me and they were discovering and writing about books I’d read long ago, but many of those have fallen by the wayside as careers and families encroached on their time. Or they’ve migrated to other social media…
      It may be that when our generation moves on, the litblog phenomenon may disappear or morph into something else.
      Now that’s a cheery thought. Not.


  9. So many wonderful books here. The only other book by O’Farrell that I’ve read is The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I loved.


    • Sounds good, I like the title already.


  10. Really enjoyed reading this chain. I think you’ll like Hamnet but I’m keen to read your thoughts once you have read it.


    • Yes, I will soon. I’ve got some catching up to do with my reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I love Maggie O’Farrell’s work. Her two works just prior to Hamnet were well received here in the UK: This Must be the Place (2016) and her extraordinary memoir I am, I am, I am. I think that most books published here are also published/licensed in “the territories” (ie, the British Commonwealth) but maybe publishers don’t always exercise that option; or maybe booksellers don’t stock them. Anyway, I think she’s fab, and Hamnet (which I gave to my mother-in-law for Christmas) is firmly at the top of my TBR pile.

    I loved Olga Masters, too. I was lucky enough to work with her back in the eighties when I was at Fremantle Arts Centre and we brought her over for a six-week writer-in-residency. Lovely, witty, woman with a wickedly keen eye for the human condition and people’s behaviour. I adored her.


    • Hello Kitty, and thankyou!
      I think you may be right about publishers not taking up the option. Given the size of our population readers such as ourselves are only a small market and I am guessing that publishers have to be judicious about which rights they buy, especially since many buyers will buy the same book from Amazon even if an Australian edition is available. (Which really, really doesn’t help our publishing industry).
      So you knew Olga Masters, what great memories you must have!

      Liked by 1 person

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