A Saviour Among The Drowning? A review of No Man is an Island by Adele Dumont

“[A]ny man’s death diminishes me,” wrote the seventeenth century poet John Donne, “because I am involved in mankind.” This question of humanitarian allegiance, and its role in alleviating suffering, lies at the heart of Adele Dumont’s extraordinary memoir No Man Is An Island (2016). Recounting her stint teaching English to asylum seekers between 2010 and 2012, first on Christmas Island then at Curtin Detention Centre in Derby, Western Australia, it is an invaluable record of bare life inside this country’s modern day torture factories.

The madness of the system is apparent upon her arrival at Christmas Island, where asylum seekers can be locked up indefinitely but there is a $5000 fine for killing the island’s famous crabs. Positivity is mandatory, and the centre’s operators regard bingo as an adequate salve for the traumatised souls in their care. The linguistic distortion favoured by totalitarian regimes is also at play: detainees are to be referred to as “clients” and their guards “client service officers.” In predictable bureaucratic fashion, the centre runs on its own timetable regardless of the needs of its so-called clients; headcounts are undertaken four times a day, depriving the detainees of their daily English lesson if they run overtime. At Curtin, her classes are interrupted by officers pulling pranks, and by hunger strikes. Neither offers her adequate resources for the role they have engaged her to fulfil.

As the book’s title suggests, Donne’s poem ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions’ flows like a current throughout the narrative. The famous stanza is quoted as an epigraph:

No man is an island

entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main.

Donne’s poem displaces the notion of individuality in favour of collective solidarity. Besides the applicability of this sentiment to her subject matter, Dumont invokes it for its use of the word island, which she uses to denote both the Australian mainland and the nation’s carceral geography. Dumont also plays on the idea of isolation, both physical and emotional, that is present in Donne’s poem to trouble the distinction between inside and outside that lies at the heart of the detention system.

Refugee advocates commonly claim that the perceived indifference of the broader Australian population to the plight of asylum seekers can be explained by the government’s use of detention centres in remote areas to isolate ‘us’ from ‘them.’ As Dumont notes, however, many Australians, such as herself, are in the centres, which immediately calls into question their positioning in the national discourse as places beyond the understanding of the mainstream population. Physical presence, however, is not enough to surmount the mental boundary marked by the barbed wire. At Christmas Island, Dumont is able to retain her self-conception as an outsider who morally objects to the system of detention because she is a volunteer. When she transfers to Curtin however, she is employed by Serco, which marks the beginning of the end, as she is “no longer comfortably separate from a system that I do not really want to be a part of.” Her classroom becomes an island of focus and activity amidst the languor of indefinite detention: “[l]ike a painter who crops her world to fit her canvas, I have to keep my focus within the four walls of my classroom.” Her students, meanwhile, are aware that detention is intended to segregate them; she reports that they ask to photocopy a map of Australia “as though it is a secret document.”

Dumont also painfully learns that physical proximity is not in itself a bridge to understanding. Despite her willingness to bear witness to the detainees’ stories, she acknowledges that she can never fully grasp the impact of their experiences, either of persecution in their countries of origin, or their treatment by her own government. While she is aware of the limits of her own empathy, a number of guards seem reluctant to even attempt to mentally overturn the stereotypes of refugees that are so willingly perpetuated by the federal government, preferring to retain their view of them as queue-jumpers who are ungrateful for the (questionable) assistance they have been given. Misunderstandings and prejudice also exist between detainees; some of the Iranian and Hazara detainees express racial prejudice towards their Tamil counterparts, and have a paranoid belief that their applications are treated preferentially.

Nevertheless, Dumont’s work thrusts her into a constellation of contrived intimacies that are by turns poignant, awkward and damaging. The way the “clients” treat her is heartbreakingly reverential. During Ramadan, although they are fasting, the students make her tea and bring her biscuits and dates, content to sit with her while she reluctantly accepts their offerings. When their regular classroom unexpectedly becomes unavailable through an administrative error, she is shepherded through the compound by her doting pupils as they search for a new one: ‘A man about half my size swiftly steps in to take my notebooks and pencil case off me, as though he is unburdening me of a great load… One of my students fans out his notebook and holds it in an attempt to shield my face from the already fierce sun.’ Outside of class, they continue to address her as “my teacher” and share with her pots of tea and cups of salted yoghurt that they have secretly fermented from a clandestine hoard of long-life milk. Their attachment is mutual; she feels homesick away from the centre, and detainees also keep tabs on where she is, mournfully confronting her about the length of her absence when she returns from a trip home that lasted longer than she had planned.


In her 2015 book Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar details the struggles of individuals who have strived to live within altruistic frameworks often bordering on the extreme. There is the couple who adopt twenty children; the health worker who offers refreshments to armed rebels after they have threatened her clinic; the family who renounced all material comfort to establish a refuge for sufferers of leprosy. One of the book’s salient questions is the origin of the subjects’ desires to do good. A number come from abusive backgrounds and are implicitly motivated to prevent others from suffering like they have, but those who grew up in comparatively stable homes appear to have latched on to altruistic ideas, seemingly inexplicably, from a young age. Dumont is honest about her own doubts and motivations. Her natural predisposition is characterised by an emotional porousness which she knows is potentially a vulnerability. But, tired of teaching English to privileged international students in Sydney, she is lured to Christmas Island by the possibility of making a difference.

Dumont’s overarching mission in penning her memoir is to interrogate what working in a detention centre does to a person. She quickly finds herself isolated among her colleagues, who can more readily turn a blind eye to suffering than she can. Indeed, their ability to recount a suicide attempt as though it is a hilarious anecdote compounds the horror she feels at confronting the detainees’ circumstances. But despite their callous bravado, she also notices moments in which the officers let their guards down, recalling “that practically all the staff shift a little when they are faced with clients.” A case worker from the department of Immigration and Citizenship is visibly uncomfortable when a wad of newspaper articles detailing attacks on Hazaras in Pakistan is thrust upon her by a detainee who has had his asylum claim rejected. Dumont, too, finds the images hard to look at, but acknowledges that ‘this is the point- to force us to look at death squarely, to see it in black and white.’

The guards and DIAC caseworkers are easy targets for cynicism and blame, but Dumont manages to sketch them with a compassionate eye, acknowledging “that people’s motivations for being here can be mixed; that some of the clients are bullies; that my own reasons for being here are not completely altruistic; and that everyone is bigger than the roles they perform in this place.” She ponders the possibility that turning a blind eye to the suffering around them is their survival mechanism. But their positions can also nurture a sense of superiority, a feeling from which Dumont is not immune; she reports, to her dismay, that within the centre she is treated like she is ‘special,’ and is conscious of her anonymity when she visits Sydney. The guards also don’t hesitate to turn on each other; bullying among them is rife. A number of the male officers view Dumont as a sexual object, and consequently her interactions with them are often fraught, requiring her to adopt a demeanour of exaggerated passivity to prevent their misogynistic banter from escalating into outright harassment. Dumont notes early on that detainees are watched but not seen; it is hard not to feel that the guards’ inability to fully see her is an extension of this logic.

Feeling increasingly remote from her colleagues at Curtin, Dumont seeks refuge in teaching. But her sense of the classroom as a nourishing space begins to break down when the centre’s routine is challenged by a hunger strike. She helps set up a makeshift medical facility with another teacher ‘[t]o try to make ourselves feel less useless,’ but remains uncertain of how to acknowledge the gravity of the detainees’ distress; it is an inescapable confrontation with her own inadequacy as an individual in the face of such overwhelming need. Like the individuals in Strangers Drowning, she finds herself questioning whether she is doing more harm than good. The centre transforms her perception of society and her place within it; she becomes more aware of the suffering of homeless people that confronts her back in Sydney, and inability to ameliorate their circumstances. Back at Curtin, she starts saying ‘no’ more often to requests made by her students outside the classroom. Where before she saw preparing detainees for life outside as a constructive activity, it increasingly appears to her that the men’s lives are moving in ‘futile circles,’ and the same could be said of her work.


Running throughout Strangers Drowning is an implicit critique of the notion of purity. Despite their intense desires to do good, many of MacFarquhar’s subjects must eventually confront the fact that they are inescapably compromised by the systems that they emerge from, and by those that they must live or work within. Despite their commitment to principle, conflict between their circumstances and their charitable missions is unavoidable. One “do-gooder,” recognizing that being miserable hampers her ability to be useful to others, becomes uncomfortably aware of her need for a certain level of happiness and comfort. Another feels conflicted about her deeply held desire to become a mother, because it will absorb energy that she could direct towards caring for others. The health worker who has treated people indiscriminately during Nicargua’s civil war learns that a man she saved subsequently went on to kill several people. But they find that ultimately, grappling with the enormity of humanity’s suffering is as much a part of their work as the actual provision of care. And so it is for Dumont: when she starts to feel numb in the face of suffering, she knows it is time to leave.

While she conveys the barbarity of the system overall, Dumont also beautifully captures the voices and personalities of her “clients” as she recounts their solicitude and careful attention, their capacity for humour and their subversive resilience, a trait especially apparent in the man who fashions a kite from a plastic bag and dental floss. Similarly, although she delineates many instances of individual suffering – a suicide, self-harm, the hunger strike, the rejected applications and the torture of waiting- there is also a subtlety to her writing that conveys an air of quiet devastation, which underpins her larger point: she is a lone individual doing the best she can in a system designed to fail. Nevertheless, each of her tender ministrations constitutes a small island of mercy.

Tops of 2021


The Imitator by Rebecca Starford (2021)

Starford’s fiction debut, a literary thriller set during World War Two, centres on a young woman, Evelyn Varley, who is recruited by MI5 to infiltrate far right groups on British soil. Although it is based on the real-life organization The Right Club and the life of MI5 officer Joan Miller, Starford wears her research lightly and makes excellent use of historical detail; one of my favourite descriptions is of a rock cake “beige and swollen like a deformed hand.” Evelyn attends a boarding school, which provides an interesting link with Starford’s own boarding school experiences, detailed in her memoir Bad Behaviour. This novel is a great example of the middlebrow; that is to say, it combines elements of both genre and literary fiction to create a layered narrative with broad appeal. While the narrative invokes the thriller genre, it is also book-ended by a romantic plot line, and is written in a highly readable style. But these stylistic elements belie its complexity as a study of the human toll of deception, betrayal and regret, which are conveyed by the novel’s more consciously literary elements. Peppered with literary references, as the plot unfolds it cleverly hinges on in its epigraph, taken from Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star: Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?

Saturday Lunch at the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer (1960/2020)

I was put on to this disturbing collection of short stories by Daisy Buchanan, who mentioned it an episode of her wonderful podcast You’re Booked. Originally published in 1960 but reissued by Daunt Books in 2020 with an excellent introduction by the critic Lucy Scholes, the stories come to life at moments when the manufactured façade of domestic felicity cracks. ‘Such a Super Evening’ is the best illustration of this; as a lonely housewife hosts a dinner party attended by a celebrity couple, the animosity between her guests throws new perspective on her own marital disappointments.

Mortimer lived through several unhappy marriages, and many scenes are based on episodes from her own life. The most notable example is the inciting argument between a husband and wife in the eponymous story, in which a wife confronts her husband over his divided affections for their children. Mortimer also details the inescapable misery and frustrations of mothering young children. In ‘Skylight’ an English mother stranded in the French countryside after her holiday plans go awry struggles to maintain her temper with her young child. In ‘What a Lovely Surprise,’ a mother is oppressed by her family’s own attempts at kindness, when they insist she stay in bed for a rest on her birthday. In ‘I Told You So,’ a mother is in the process of separating from her husband, who behaves like one of the children and can’t understand her desire to break free. His self-absorption manifests in his use of the children as pawns; when one of them is hurt, he triumphs over the injury to prove a point with his wife:

He did attempt to comfort the child. He allowed her to cry, carrying her with great pride and caution, as though she were a treasure he had won, a rare and valuable hostage.

This is How by MJ Hyland (2009)

Hyland’s second novel is inspired by a true story she encountered in a true crime book: a man in his twenties served a fourteen-year sentence after an unprovoked attack that killed a fellow lodger. It is a harrowing portrayal of a murder with seemingly no motive and masterfully evokes the claustrophobia of prison, in which every relationship is transactional.

If Patrick’s actions can’t be explained, nor can his will to live, of which Hyland manages to create a sympathetic portrait. Perpetually at odds with his society, once incarcerated Patrick confides: “I’m sometimes happier in here… life’s shrinking to a size that suits me more.”

Hyland’s language is disarmingly simple and clear; she goes to great pains to “hide” her craft, leaving her work with vast depths that are an intellectual pleasure to plumb. I am counting down for her new novel in 2023.


Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe (2018)

Keefe investigates the disappearance of Jean McConville, a mother of ten abducted by the IRA in December 1972. While Keefe’s overarching purpose is to find McConville’s killer, he synthesizes an incredible amount of historical detail and situates the narrative amidst its wide-ranging contexts, both historical and contemporary: atrocities committed by the British military; hunger strikes carried out by Irish nationalists in prison; Westminster politics; and the ways in which those who committed atrocities have reckoned with their actions. It also explores the lives of two sisters, Dolours and Marian Price, who came from a family with deep sympathies to the IRA, and who became involved in armed struggle during their teens.

This book is timely given the implications of Brexit for the potential reinstatement of a potential Irish “hard border,” but it is also significant for exposing the effects of the Troubles on children. Not only were children exposed to horrific violence and constant fear, but those whose parents or relatives were “disappeared” continue today to be caught in a current of trauma and uncertainty. Their stories also intersect with other great blight on contemporary Irish history: institutional abuse. Tragically, following their mother’s disappearance, some of the McConville children entered state care.

She Left Me The Gun by Emma Brockes (2013)

Brockes’s mother, Pauline, survived an extremely abusive upbringing in South Africa, but concealed this from Emma, her only child, who she raised in England. Following Pauline’s premature death from cancer, Brockes goes to South Africa to meet her mother’s friends and relatives for the first time, and to conduct archival research about a rumoured historical scandal involving her grandfather, all within the larger context of a society transitioning from apartheid.  

What makes this such a moving story is the way Brockes’s mother worked hard to make her daughter’s upbringing different from hers, breaking the inter-generational transmission of violence and dysfunction, but without ever resenting her daughter for this. Her actions embody the ultimate paradox of parenthood: to give it everything you have, knowing that all the while you are rendering yourself redundant.

Richard Lloyd Parry

Parry is a British journalist who lives in Tokyo, where he works as the Asia Editor of the Times of London. He has written three acclaimed works of non-fiction, all of which I read over the year. While Parry incorporates intense detail that he obtains through the most dogged of journalistic research, the books are also beautifully written, and highly attentive to what the novelist Amanda Lohrey calls “messages from another realm.” In The Time of Madness (2005) examines the violence and chaos that accompanied the end of Suharto’s reign, but also evokes the mystical prognostications of this time made by a twelfth century poet, Jaya Abhaya. In his second book, People Who Eat Darkness (2011), about the murder of young British woman Lucie Blackman in Japan, the message takes the form of a premonition experienced by Lucie’s mother. Ghosts of the Tsunami (2017) follows the efforts of parents in the village of Okawa to hold the school accountable for the botched evacuation that led to their children’s deaths in the 2011 tsunami. As the title suggests, the parents must learn to live with the ghosts of their children, but the book also captures the eerie quality of the decimated landscape, and the otherworldly ways in which grief and trauma can manifest themselves.

Girls at the Piano by Virginia Lloyd (2018)

Lloyd’s beautifully written memoir traces her stalled career as a concert pianist after her ascent is interrupted by injury. While her natural talent is apparent when she begins taking lessons, Lloyd is ambivalent about her abilities, and conveys the burden of possessing a gift she never asked for. This is further complicated by Lloyd’s parallel exploration of her grandmother’s aborted pursuit of a career as a pianist, and how female pianists throughout history have been held back by the misogynistic expectations of their societies. It is also about snobbery in the classical music world, both in terms of class and in terms of hierarchies between different genres of music; Lloyd’s true interest lies in jazz, an interest she is able to pursue when a musical career is no longer on the cards.

Becoming a Bird by Stephanie Radok (2021)

Radok’s idiosyncratic book is an examination of the nature and purpose of art. It chimes with the basic definition of art-making as the bringing into being of an object that did not previously exist. Far from being an oversimplification, this premise reveals the profundity of an artist’s mindset. Radok finds inspiration and meaning in every aspect of her surroundings, and demonstrates the importance of observation and deep attention, two skills we are in danger of losing.

Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamorna Ash (2020)

Ash’s debut is an account of her eight-day voyage on board a Cornish fishing trawler. A trained anthropologist, Ash excavates the history of Cornwall’s fishing industry, and its contemporary struggles in the face of concerns about environmental sustainability, EU fishing quotas, Brexit, and the gentrification arising from wealthy holiday-makers taking on second homes in the area, the economic benefits of which do not flow on to Cornish residents (indeed, Cornwall is the only county in the UK to qualify for EU emergency funding due to its level of impoverishment). She also looks at the meanings of seasickness, and the effects of sea-going on families and relationships, and the incidence of suicide. Her family has a history in Cornwall (she is named after Lamorna Cove), and she lightly weaves this personal perspective through her critique, alongside liberal sprinklings of literary references including Woolf, Sebald (whose Rings of Saturn becomes a kind of guide), and Elizabeth Bishop among others. The result is dense but brilliant portrayal of the joys and struggles of a unique place.

Best Criticism

My favourite critic is Daniel Mendelsohn, who is editor-at-large of the New York Review of Books. I was pleased to read two longform essays by him last year, both published in the New Yorker: one on Hilary Mantel, and the other on Pat Barker’s The Girls. Mendelsohn is a classicist, and brings his deep knowledge of all things Ancient Greek to his reviews of contemporary culture.

Mendelsohn also makes a great case for the relevance of the classics and the importance of a robust critical culture in an interview for the Sydney Writer’s Festival chaired by Catriona Menzies-Pike, the editor of the Sydney Review of Books. Ms Menzies-Pike also hosts another excellent discussion with Declan Fry and Bernadette Brennan that tackles the thorny subject of ‘negative’ reviews.

I got a lot out of two critiques of Normal People: one by Becca Rothfeld in The Point, where she is a contributing editor, and another by Rebecca Liu in Another Gaze. Rothfeld invokes Fifty Shades of Grey in her piece, a comparison that was unexpected but illuminating. Liu, meanwhile, looks at the problematic discourse around Normal People and Fleabag, which presumes the dilemmas of their protagonists are universal.

My favourite reviews by Australian critics were published by the Sydney Review of Books. The first, by Drusilla Modjeska, examines memoirs of mortality and the second, by Giselle Anh-Nguyen, is on Nina Mingya Powles’ essay collection Bodies of Water which ‘muses on identity, race, family and the nebulous, shifting idea of home.’

Helga Stentzel’s Household Surrealism

In 2020, as the world was grappling with lockdown, London-based visual artist Helga Stentzel gained an internet following with her Household Surrealism project. Premised on turning everyday domestic objects into art, her creations reflect her mission to ‘help people to connect with their inner child and rediscover the joy of savouring little visual delights in and outside their homes.’

In Stentzel’s ‘Clothing Line Animals Series,’ four-legged animals – a cow, a horse, a polar bear- take shape from fabrics and clothing hung over a washing line. The wordplay in their titles lends each scene a poignancy that transcends their whimsical appearance; the polar bear, stretched across the line as if it is extending its neck to sniff the wind, is titled ‘Hang on!’, a reference to the species’ climate change-induced precarity.

Stentzel’s search for ‘magic in the mundane’ also takes on greater resonance in light of COVID-induced isolation. In her book The Body in Pain, critical theorist Elaine Scarry argues that every artifact – every creation – is a ‘fragment of world alteration.’ The imagination is there, Scarry contends, to negate absence, including that of our friends. Stentzel takes this to heart, producing a breed of friendly “monsters” – mischievous, googly-eyed creatures that stare back from unlikely places, such as a doorjamb, or the pane of a washing machine. The caption of a Twitter video that shows Stentzel “monsterising” her letterbox slot reads: “I’ll just keep creating imaginary friends until I can hug my real ones again.”

In another notable series, Stentzel creates figures from food. Perusing her Instagram (@helga.stentzel) and Twitter (@helgastentzel) accounts, I stumbled across a choir of singing avocados conducted by a spring onion; a puppy shaped from a loaf of bread, and another from a pile of artfully arranged lettuce leaves. A bunch of grapes made from green gummy bears takes the series into hyperreal territory, and hints at her previous career as an art director in the advertising industry.

While critics rightly argue that social media bears a lot of responsibility for maintaining our subordination to the attention economy, Stentzel’s use of these platforms can be construed as a form of resistance against its attention-sapping effects. Close observation is central to Stentzel’s practice; in an interview with the online journal My Modern Met, she stated that she ‘can spend ages examining a slice of bread in a restaurant.’ While her creations are comforting and joyous, they can also assist us to cultivate a deeper register of attention, which we can draw on to devise interventions of our own.

But what were they really like? A review of Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair

Whenever I meet someone new and tell them that I have written biographies of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, their first question is usually “What made you choose those subjects?” I’ve honed a ready answer over the years one designed to be brief and polite and to let me change the subject. “They were remarkable people,” I say. “Truly extraordinary. Great Privilege to have known them.” Most of the time I don’t get away with it, and the question what routinely follows is ‘What were they really like?” That one is never easy to answer.

In her writers’ manual The Writing Life, Kate Grenville states that ‘[l]ife only has a plot in retrospect.’ And so it is with Deirdre Bair, the ‘accidental biographer’ who famously won the National Book Award for her 1978 debut, a biography of Samuel Beckett, and subsequently went on to chronicle the lives of other intellectuals including Simone de Beauvoir and Anais Nin. ‘Call it serendipity, synchronicity, happenstance, or accident,’ Bair writes, ‘whatever it was, I became the biographer of two of the most remarkable people the world has ever known.’

The circumstances that led Bair to undertake the Beckett biography were themselves vague and circuitous. In 1968, aged in her late twenties, Bair had left her job as a journalist for the New Haven Register to return to university; her husband was a graduate student and they had two young children. Tired of ‘trying to have it all’ before the phrase had even come into popular consciousness, Bair enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University as a ‘circuit breaker.’ After receiving a fellowship from the Danforth Foundation, which was intended to improve the career prospects for women in academia, Bair wrote her year-long master’s thesis on Joyce, which led her to Beckett, and to a ‘financially practical’ decision to write a biography of him; a choice arrived at by shuffling index cards with the names of early twentieth century writers written on them.

Bair had never read a biography, and instinctively bucked against the dominant literary theory of the time, which held that ‘[t]he only valid interpretation of literature came from the work itself, not from the author’s life or the world in which he lived… Never mind that a work might have been produced in haste by a writer who could not pay his rent or take his sick child to a doctor… or by a frustrated person who had to live a deeply closeted life and could only hint at sexual preferences in carefully guarded references.’ Bair’s hunch that Beckett’s work was more ‘deeply rooted in his Irish heritage’ than previous critics had suggested. Undeterred by a professor who believed that investigating the how, what and who would be ‘professional suicide,’ Bair forged ahead and contacted Beckett, who agreed to meet with her in Paris.

The rest, as they say, is history, but it was very nearly not. At the close of her first meeting with Beckett, he told her: ‘I will neither help nor hinder you. My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.’ And, Bair tells us, ‘[i]n the seven years to come, those people did exactly what Beckett had said they would.’

She ploughed through significant challenges, which ranged from funding shortfalls, balancing her family life with constant travel to Paris, poor representation by her agent whom she eventually fired, and the continual fluctuations of biographical writing – re-writes every time new information came to light. Initially Beckett didn’t take her seriously (you can consult Beckett’s published letters to find his opinion of Bair), and despite his assurance that he wouldn’t hinder her, exploded in an early interview: ‘No pencils! No paper! We are just having conversations. We are two friends talking. You must never write anything that we say. And don’t even think of a tape recorder… And you must not tell others that I meet with you. Ever!’

Beckett had the odd habit of compartmentalizing his friends, many of whom sought out Bair in order to convince her that they were his primary confidante, and Bair, intimately acquainted with Beckett’s life and schedule, wades through many false claims about time these so-called friends had spent with him. While she has access to Beckett, she needs to fight for access to unpublished and un-archived correspondence, especially the cache of letters between Beckett and Thomas MacGreevy. After much to-ing and fro-ing, she finally gets a sliver of access, and realizes that without them the book would have been not only incomplete, but a false portrait.

Money is a perennial problem, with Bair spending an inordinate amount of time applying for grants and seeking bottom-rung employment at various universities in which she takes on a teaching overload. Eventually, despite winning the National Book Award, her employer embarks on a protracted process to obfuscate her tenure application process, and she resigns in disgust and exhaustion to become a full-time biographer. Such details make Parisian Lives a salutary lesson for aspiring writers.


Bair envisaged Parisian Lives as a ‘book about the writing of the books.’ Originally intended as a scholarly manual, the book evolved into a memoir after she received the same response from everyone she consulted: ‘Each time I suggested this possible project, even to fellow biographers or academics, the response was always “That’s all very nice, but please just tell us what Beckett and Beauvoir were really like.”’ This is a curiously paradoxical element of the biographer’s existence- despite being an authority on a number of famous figures, she spends time dodging intimate questions about her subjects in an attempt to remain above the fray.

In Parisian Lives, however, the gloves are definitely off. Bair had to go against her biographer’s instincts to ‘make myself both subject and object, to discover those selves as I went along in real life and on the page.’ Having joked that ‘I could not write a sentence saying “It was a nice day” until I checked weather reports for three weeks before and after that day in every newspaper published in Beckett’s immediate area,’ Bair maintains her meticulous approach to detail by consulting, and quoting from, her daily diaries that she kept while working on the biographies.  

Despite her extraordinary professional life, ultimately Parisian Lives is a conventional affair, progressing chronologically through the nitty gritty of her writerly existence. It is also necessarily gossipy, and satisfyingly settles some old scores, especially against the many long dead chauvinists who actively tried to destroy Bair’s career and reputation. This group, whom Bair calls the Becketteers, excluded her from academic conferences, gave negative reviews in bad faith, and some of its members even confronted her directly with sexist abuse and put-downs about her ability as a writer. One academic baldly tried to pass off Bair’s research as his own, resulting in a flurry of legal intervention.  

Unfortunately, Bair passed away of a heart attack in April 2020 at the age of 84, but this memoir ensures she got a semblance of the last word on her own curious and well-lived life.


Parisian Lives was published by Atlantic Books in 2020

Highlights of 2020

Thanks to Covid-19 I read a personal record of 158 books in 2020.

(asterisks indicate Australian authors)


The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (2019)

The Five is an astonishing social history that delves into the lives of the ‘canonical five’ victims of Jack the Ripper. The book seeks to put their lives into their contexts of poverty and disadvantage and to de-sexualise them, as their representation in the popular imagination remains synonymous with sexual temptation and prostitution. Indeed, as Rubenhold shows, for four of them there is no evidence that they were prostitutes. There is a fascinating interview with Rubenhold on the Guardian books podcast, which is where I first heard about it. 

Having and Being Had by Eula Biss (2020)

Biss trains her unique and perceptive lens on capitalism and labour. Fascinating insights into reflections on the lives of Virginia Woolf and Marx also pepper the book. This brief outline doesn’t do it justice, so read Aminatta Forna’s review in the Guardian.

Our Bright Hour by Nina Rigg (2017)

This memoir by the poet Nina Rigg chronicles her years living with terminal breast cancer, as she comes to terms with the fact that she won’t grow old with her husband, or see her two sons reach adolescence. It is a moving portrayal of the life she created with her partner John and the daily wonder of raising two precocious children. Interestingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson was Rigg’s ancestor, and she also reflects on his contribution to literature, as well as her love for Montaigne’s essays. Rigg died at 6am on 26 February 2017 at the age of 39. I would say this is the standout book of my reading year. Read it with tissues- you may need more than one box.

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adelaide Bon (2018)

Translated from French, this book reveals the ongoing effects of living with childhood sexual assault. As a young girl, Adelaide was attacked by a serial rapist, and has spent the rest of her life trying to cope with the trauma. Bon also gave an illuminating lecture on witches in the cultural imagination at Sydney Writers Festival.

Night Fishing by Vicki Hastrich (2019)*

These essays are profound meditations on the artistic process, and how obsessions- for Hastrich, with the Woy Woy area, the ocean and Goya- are an undercurrent in artists’ lifelong creative quests. The collection was born out of Hastrich’s ‘fallow period’; a decision to be ‘unproductive’ when a novel she was writing wasn’t working out:

The more I thought about it the more I warmed to the idea: I would go dormant but in a way that was still active. If I opened myself up and calmy listened, there might be all sorts of things to hear – things I didn’t immediately have to turn into something else, as writers often feel compelled to do. In fact, I would be anti-production. I would read and walk and look at art and people and nature, and I would let whatever came my way to wash over and through me, and then let it go.

She also offers us this pearler: ‘…the pleasure of thinking a big idea is not to be dismissed as nothing. Even if the idea is never realised, the thinking is real and enlarging, sustaining, as much a part of art and the life of inquiry as actual production.’

After Our Bright Hour, this is the next best book I read in 2020.

The Girls by Chloe Higgins (2019)*

Chloe Higgins’s debut details the legacy of living with intense grief and trauma. When she was in her final year of school, Chloe’s two younger sisters died after the car their father was driving was involved in an accident and burst into flames. Beautifully written and unsparing in its honesty, this book is a compelling read and won the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

Travel Light, Move Fast by AD Fuller (2019)

This memoir, from the author of the instant classic Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, looks at the death of her father and the ongoing legacy of her parents’ colonial existence in Rhodesia and Zambia. It has to be noted that Fuller is one of those memoirists who reproduces long conversations and claims them to be verbatim, which usually rings alarm bells for me. However she has worked as a journalist so it is possible she meticulously chronicles her life and interactions. Nevertheless, this book is so beautifully written and draws out the dynamics of complex family relationships in a post-colonial setting so finely that it deserves a guernsey.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding: a True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale (2020)

This is Summerscale’s fifth book, and her second to be set in the interwar period (this was the backdrop for her first book The Queen of Whale Cay).  Summerscale looks at reports of poltergeists in suburban London as the second World War looms darkly on the horizon. Focusing on one household- that of the eponymous Alma Fielding- Summerscale follows the investigation of Hungarian-Jewish ghost hunter Nandor Fodor, and the burgeoning belief in psychoanalysis and the unconscious, which makes Fodor question his belief in the supernatural. Watch out for a review on this blog in 2021.

The Details by Tegan Bennett Daylight (2020)*

I had not previously read Daylight’s work, and came across her book of essays after an excerpt was published in the Guardian. I devoured it in a weekend.

The essays are masterclasses in both analysis and critical writing, with her love of Helen Garner and George Saunders shining through, although for a critic she is surprisingly rigid when it comes to the canon- she despairs for the university students she teaches who have not read ‘the classics.’ This is a flaw of the book- surely the role of the critic, especially a female one, is to challenge the male-dominated canon? It is an odd blindspot considering the lead essay is about the damage childbirth did to her vagina and challenges the silence our society has constructed about the horror of childbirth and women’s health more broadly. She also valorises the critic James Wood, whose insightful work nevertheless shares her own blindspot: his book How Fiction Works is dominated by the work of white men. This quibble aside, however, the collection is well worth a read.


Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey* (2020)

A hilarious and poignant look at a bunch of Harvard graduates gathering for their fifteenth reunion in the shadow of a Trump-like President. As I wrote in my review for the Newtown Review of Books, Dovey’s move to a more commercial premise has not compromised the profundity of her fiction.

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (2020)

The narrator is asked by her friend to assist her to die as she suffers from terminal cancer. A stirring meditation on friendship and loyalty against the backdrop of planetary destruction. Nunez’s style is circuitous, spare and, at times, oblique, but she still manages to get to the heart of the matter.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008)

2020 will also be memorable for my belated encounter with the prickly and imperfect Olive, who, despite her flaws, is an endearing character who the reader can’t help but care about. Strout’s heartwarming portrayal of ordinary people going about their lives as best they can is deeply moving. A sequel was published in 2019 which is on my list for this year, as is her forthcoming novel

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

O’Farrell’s eight novel takes a beautiful, heartbreaking look at the life of William Shakespeare’s only son, who died in childhood from the plague. O’Farrell’s imagined journey of the fleas carrying the plague to Hamnet is remarkable, as is her portrayal of grief and the way it haunts its sufferers.

I had wanted to review this for a journal as there is hardly any critical work available on Maggie O’Farrell (a very nothing-y review was published in the TLS, a slightly better one appeared in the New Statesman), but unfortunately the publication I approached turned my review down. I did however review it on this blog. Hamnet won last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, so hopefully her next book garners more critical attention.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)

I finally got around to reading Normal People, which the media, including critical cultural publications, love to refer to as the quintessential millennial novel. The word millennial gets flung about with such abandon that it now fails to signify anything meaningful. I’ve found it is often accompanied by the adjective ‘solipsistic.’  

If anything, Normal People challenges this lazy designation. Turns out, your late teens and early twenties are a meaningful period of your life. There is a scene when the two main characters, Connell and Marianne- an on-again-off-again couple whose personal and collective shame keeps getting in the way of their relationship- are reflecting on their shared history and the current state of their lives.  ‘Its funny the decisions you make because you like someone,’ says Connell, ‘and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.’

A lot of (digital) ink has been spilled in parsing the appeal of Normal People, and of Rooney’s oeuvre (if you can call it that after two books). A mixed review by Madeline Schwartz in the New York Review of Books drew attention to Rooney’s flat prose and self-destructive female characters. Lauren Collins, conversely, waxed lyrical in the New Yorker about Rooney’s millennial sensibilities. Meanwhile, for Emily Temple writing in Lithub, it’s all about the sex:

how vulnerable it is, how tender…But it’s necessary, too. Marianne and Connell are magnetized in this mysterious way, both in the book and in its adaptation; it’s a sexual magnetization as well as an emotional one, and it comes with the constant refrain: “it’s not like this with other people.” Indeed not, and for that reason the sex stops short of being realistic, exactly—which only makes it more effective at transmitting the narrative’s central concern: the uncommon bond between these two people, and whether it can outlast the world around it.

To me, the success of Normal People can be explained by the way it counters the pervasive belief that the relationships formed and broken in early adulthood are not damaging, or that they have no bearing on the rest of your life. Rooney gives voice to the lingering feelings of shame and longing that forever colour the memory of your first romantic attachment. We want to believe that love will win out; indeed, we are drip fed this message from an early age. But the mutual attraction and vulnerabilities shared by Connell and Marianne does not mean their love is straightforward. Questions of image, and the pursuit of status and of glamour – not to mention class – cannot be separated from our ideas about love. This, too is a lifelong tension.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Though it may at first seem like a stretch, I think Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham is, in many ways, the corollary of Normal People. Whereas Rooney’s novel is forward-looking, Sittenfeld’s is a playful retrospective examination of the fork in the road that was Hillary Rodham’s decision to marry Bill Clinton.

Like Marianne, Hillary has a problematic father, which leaves her with lingering psychological effects, including insecurity. By the time Bill asks her out on a date, Hillary has already taken a senator to task in her university graduation address; one would assume she is gearing up to take her place in the world, yet she cannot believe a man of his stature would show any interest, let alone romantic interest, in her.

But what, exactly, is Bill’s interest? Sittenfeld cracks open this question through her retelling of the famous Sixty Minutes interview; in the actual historical interview Hillary sits beside her cheating husband and defends him to the American public. In Rodham, Hillary looks on with horror as the woman who had the misfortune to marry Bill does the same.

Perhaps I loved this novel so much because it is close to the bone. I started dating my first boyfriend in the summer immediately following my graduation from highschool. Aspiring to poltiical office, he worked on and off in the electoral offices of various state Labor MPs. Alas for me, my hair was not long enough, my smile not broad enough, my conscience not silent enough, my personality not submissive enough. Eventually he unceremoniously ditched me.

Now, I await elections with dread. But even if we have the collective misfortune of one day seeing him on television, at least I will never be that woman on Sixty Minutes; I will also never be dragged out, like Margie Abbott was in 2016, to inform the Australian public of my politician husband’s penchant for period dramas, or to reassure voters that if you actually get to know him, he really is a nice guy.

Prior to this experience, I had wondered earnestly about how you could spend your life married to someone who was so obviously a pig, and not only keep on being married to them but also deny their piggery. I was so confident in my ability to avoid this particular pitfall. Now, of course, I know better.  As Anne Enright wrote in her review of Rodham for the Guardian, ‘Love is the great accident. We can fall for the wrong person, or we can have the great good fortune to attach ourselves to the right person, and the strange thing is, we may never know which is which.’

Michelle de Kretser writes that the job of good writing is to make us feel seen. Rodham did more to validate the decade of humiliation I felt as a result of that formative relationship than any counselling I’ve undertaken. I had joined the ranks of Hillary and Margie for a time, but was ultimately spared. Now I can look back with gratitude.

Best critical writing

Two lengthy reviews really stand out in my mind. The first by Roslyn Jolly examines Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock in conjunction with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. It is a searing validation of ‘angry’ literature, canvassing the ‘indignities, trespasses and violence to which women are subjected, in the wider world and more particularly in their own homes.’

Angry Women | Roslyn Jolly on Evie Wyld and Anne Brontë (sydneyreviewofbooks.com)

The second by Thornton McCamish looks at Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen and Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum.

Attack on language: ‘Surviving Autocracy’ and ‘Twilight of Democracy’ | The Monthly

I also loved the take on the writing life offered by the supremely talented Laura Elizabeth Woollett. Called ‘Award Rate,’ it captures the ignominy of trying to carve out an artistic life under capitalism, and the rock-and-a-hard-place scenario of being shortlisted for a major literary award, ‘a once-in-a-lifetime boon from a government that would prefer we didn’t exist.’

Thanks for the money, I imagine saying, then slipping offstage. Would that be too ungracious? Uninspiring? Thanks for the money. It’s a lot. I wish there was more to go around.

Award Rate | Laura Elizabeth Woollett on writing | Sydney Review of Books

What I’m Looking Forward to reading in 2021


Alice Pung, One Hundred Days (June, Black Inc.): a pregnant sixteen year old battles her mother as the due date approaches.

Anna Spargo-Ryan, A Kind of Magic (July, Picador): Spargo-Ryan’s memoir is based on her 2016 Horne prize-winning essay The Suicide Gene.

Krissy Kneen, The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen: Travels with My Grandmother’s Ashes (May, Text): Kneen investigates the early life of her grandmother, following the trail through Eastern Europe and Egypt.

Kathryn Heyman, Fury (May): novelist Kathryn Heyman discusses the aftermath of a sexual assault and how she survived it.


Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera (Viking): a study that looks at the legacy of empire from the NHS to Brexit and Covid.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber): involving an “Artificial Friend,” this nvel considers humanity and the meaning of love.

Inventory of a Life Mislaid by Marina Warner (William Collins): a memoir centering on objects.

Everybody by Olivia Laing (Picador): an investigation into bodies, which looks at protests, alternative medicine and the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.

Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal (Chatto & Windus): looks at Count Camondo, a prominent Jewish banker and the creator of a vast collection of decorative arts, who lost a son in the first world war and whose daughter and grandchildren died in the Holocaust.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe (Picador): the author of Say Nothing investigates the secrets of the controversial pharmaceutical family.

Real Estate by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton): The final instalment in the award-winning “living autobiography” series.

Consumed by Arifa Akbar (Sceptre): the Guardian’s theatre critic tells the story of her sister’s death from TB, and also considers the history of the disease.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (Granta): a fesh look at Orwell through his love of nature and gardening.

Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather

I was able to review Olivia Laing’s new book Funny Weather for RightNow.

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency is a collection of short reviews and essays that Laing has written over the past decade for various publications. Its title takes the name of the monthly column she wrote for the US-based art magazine Frieze between 2015 and 2018. As these pieces are infused with a nervousness about populist or authoritarian regimes, the collection has been marketed as a response to Trump and Brexit. Explicit political commentary is not, however, the driving force of the entire collection, with many of the pieces bridging diverse subjects, including the work of Hilary Mantel, the visual artists Chantal Joffe and Sarah Lucas, and the twin catastrophes of AIDS and gentrification in 1980s New York.

Thanks to RightNow for the opportunity. You can read the review here

‘Remember Me’: A Review of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

In her 2017 memoir I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, British writer Maggie O’Farrell details the many times she has come close to the brink. Near-drowning, mismanaged childbirth, the close call of a car boot smacking her five-year-old head. A debilitating childhood illness, a lark with friends gone wrong; so many occasions in which events could have gone either way. ‘There is nothing unique or special,’ O’Farrell writes, ‘in a near-death experience. They are not rare; everyone, I would venture, has had them, at one time or another, perhaps without even realising it…We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.’

This visceral awareness of the thin membrane separating life from death pervades O’Farrell’s novels. Her plots unfold against the humdrum rhythm of daily life when tragedy and devastation are abstracted and the precipice upon which all lives teeter is easily ignored. Apparent order is suddenly tipped into chaos by an unsettling presence, an insistent echo, or a fuzzy object at the edge of a character’s vision. As her characters wrestle with their haunted states, the edifices they have constructed around their lives and identities become suffocating and oppressive, demanding to be dismantled. In The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (from 2006, reviewed on this blog in 2019), an elderly woman is released from lifelong incarceration in an asylum and the injustice that put her there demands reassessment and remedy, with her descendants taking on the responsibility of righting the past. In The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), the birth of a baby reveals cracks in the story a family has clung to for generations. In Instructions for a Heatwave (2013), disconnected siblings are involuntarily reunited after their father disappears. In This Must Be The Place (2016), an Irish linguist living in New York grapples with the possibility that he contributed to the death of a former girlfriend.

O’Farrell’s latest novel, Hamnet, is a reimagining of the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of eleven from bubonic plague. In an interview with the Guardian, O’Farrell states that she has been fascinated by Hamnet ever since she learnt of him at school, and believes that his life and death have not been given proper weight or consideration by critics and academics. She takes particular issue with the idea that parents in the sixteenth century did not grieve their children merely because the child mortality rate was high.

Superficially, its Elizabethan setting and portrayal of actual historical figures characterise the novel as a departure from O’Farrell’s oeuvre of ‘contemporary domestic gothic.’ Indeed, much of the publicity surrounding Hamnet portrays the novel as an attempt to lay to rest the scholarly debate on whether Hamnet’s death inspired Shakespeare to write the play ‘Hamlet.’ While O’Farrell acknowledges this debate in her foreword, interrogating Shakespeare’s writing process is not her primary motivation. William Shakespeare is never named; in fact he is barely present, with the vast majority of the plot taking place in Stratford-upon-Avon while the playwright is in London. Rather, Hamnet can be seen as a continuation of O’Farrell’s established preoccupations, foremost of which is the necessity of confrontation with painful realities and repressed truths. While in her previous novels such confrontation hinges on the airing of shameful family or personal secrets, in Hamnet, O’Farrell draws attention to grief as an enduring state of being rather than as a transitory experience, and to the way in which the act of loving another is, in itself, a confrontation with death.

O’Farrell’s fiction consistently draws attention to the unrealised insight of lost moments and the claims of the unmourned. Her creative mission is to carve out a space in which profound emotion can be expressed, while avoiding simplistic notions of ‘closure’. Hamnet’s family members are disoriented by his loss. Part of this is shock at the rapidity with which life is extinguished; as Hamnet is laid out in preparation for burial, ‘[t]he soles and nails still bear the dirt so recently accrued from lie: grit from the road, soil from the garden, mud from the riverbank, where he swam not a week ago with friends.’ Because of the plague, his mother, Agnes (O’Farrell reverts to an alternative spelling of Anne Hathaway’s name that is found in some records) is required to relinquish Hamnet’s body shortly after death. Unable to observe adequate mourning rituals, she feels cut adrift; ‘more and more, her own life seems strange and unrecognisable to her.’ Similarly, as there is no word for a twin who has lost its twin, Hamnet’s death renders his twin sister Judith a stranger to herself.

In I Am, O’Farrell alludes to the inadequacy of language in coming to terms with loss. She recounts her experience of unexplained secondary infertility, which caused her to suffer numerous miscarriages. She writes that ‘losing a baby, a foetus, an embryo, a child, a life, even at a very early stage, is a shock like no other,’ and is aghast at the way society treats such losses as unspeakable; as ‘spirits, wraiths, who never breathed air, never saw light. So invisible, so evanescent, that our language doesn’t even have a word for them.’ For reasons that are also scientifically unexplained, O’Farrell’s body does not recognise that her unborn children have died, but she takes the unwillingness of her body to ‘let go’ as a visceral confirmation of the incomprehensibility of such loss.

One of Hamnet’s uncles articulates the dilemma facing the entire family following his death, wondering ‘how will we live? What will we do now?’ These are especially painful questions for William and Agnes, whose differing reactions initially tear them apart. William is away in London at the time of Hamnet’s death; initially summoned because Judith is gravely ill, he arrives to find that it is Hamnet, instead, who has died. As he goes back and forward to London, the heaviness of grief will not go away; ‘[h]e feels as though he is caught in a web of absence, its strings and tendrils ready to stick and cling to him.’

In many memoirs of terminal illness, it is not the fear of death that the writer is consumed by, but, rather, the prospect of eternal separation from their loved ones. Reflecting on mortality in her book Therapies of Desire, philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes that:

the intensity and dedication with which very many human activities are pursued cannot be explained without reference to the awareness that our opportunities are finite, that we cannot choose these activities indefinitely many times. In raising a child, in cherishing a lover, in performing a demanding task of work or thought or artistic creation, we are aware, at some level, of the thought that each of these efforts is structured and constrained by finite time.

Loving another entails opening oneself to the possibility of their loss; the very act of loving another is thus a confrontation with death. To me, this explains why confrontation with pain is so important in O’Farrell’s work; as the death of a loved one is the ultimate confrontation with pain, by denying death, we diminish our ability to love. In O’Farrell’s writing, the trick to survival is not to erase pain, but to sit with it; to hold it. It becomes the new centre.  ‘Every life,’ proclaims the narrator in Hamnet, ‘has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything radiates out, to which everything returns.’ Hamnet is, at its core, a story of death rewritten as a story of love. It is originally Judith who falls in, but in a magical scene, Hamnet swaps himself for her; the ultimate act of love.

In the final chapter of I Am, O’Farrell reveals that her second child- a miracle baby whose twin died at an early stage in utero- has severe anaphylaxis, which results in her coming close to death many times a year. Consequently, O’Farrell and her family live ‘in a state of high alert.’ Reflecting on the process of writing a memoir, O’Farrell told the Guardian: ‘I realised that trying to pin down in words what she goes through was my way of trying to feel in control but that control was illusory.’ She has spent countless hours poring over emergency plans for when her daughter has an episode, and trained her oldest child to say ‘at the age of six, how to dial 999 and say into the receiver, “This is an emergency case of anaphylaxis.”’ Agnes is portrayed by O’Farrell as a mystical healer; despite being sought after for her special knowledge, she is ultimately unable to save her own child.

Love is also the desire to protect your child from both physical harm, and also from losing their innocence. Having survived a chilling encounter on a mountainside with a man who later went on to rape and murder another young woman, O’Farrell contemplates the task of warning her children about ‘what dangers lie around corners for you, around twisting paths, around boulders, in the tangles of forests… there are people out there who want to hurt you and you will never know why.’ In Hamnet, Agnes’s instinct is to protect her husband from the knowledge of their son’s death: ‘Agnes looks at him and he looks back at her. She wants, more than anything, to stretch this moment, to expand the time before he knows, to shield him from what has happened for as long as she can.’

When Agnes hears that her husband has written a play named after their son, she feels a confused distaste, as though her husband has invoked her son’s name purely for his own ends. Travelling to London to see it for herself, her understanding transforms with the appearance of the ghost. By writing the play, Shakespeare has pulled off the very feat that is impossible in ordinary life: bringing back the dead. It chimes with her with her own desire ‘to scratch the ground, perhaps with a hoe, to score the streets beneath her, so that there will forever be a mark, for it always to be known that this way Hamnet came. He was here.’

The final word is reserved for the ghost: ‘remember me’.