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Maggie O’Farrell: Contemporary Critical Perspectives reveal links between O’Farrell and the Irish diaspora

The editor of the volume, novelist Elaine Canning, has created the first comprehensive guide to O’Farrell’s writings, incorporating the responses of reviewers

Maggie O’Farrell's latest book, 'The Marriage Portrait,' imagines the life of the girl who is thought to have inspired Robert Browning’s famous poem 'My Last Duchess'. Photograph: Robert Ormerod/The New York Times
Maggie O’Farrell: Contemporary Critical Perspectives
Author: Elaine Canning
ISBN-13: 978-1350325005
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Guideline Price: £85

The most difficult thing of all is to see what’s in front of your eyes. Academic interpretations of literature sometimes give themselves more trouble in this respect than garden-variety reading ever would. An innocent enthusiast for the work of Maggie O’Farrell, the subject of this collection of essays, might feel some misgivings as the introduction lays out its armoury. “Trauma theory,” “palimpsestuousness,” “defamiliarisation and inversion” feature among the tools and terms to be applied to the novels under discussion, which in what follows are said to “problematise,” “interrogate” and “destabilise” issues raised by their own form and content.

In spite of the occurrence of such operations – familiar to many who have recently studied English at university – this is an enjoyable and informative set of essays, which deepen appreciation and knowledge of an unusual and notably successful contemporary author. Multiply award-winning, O’Farrell combines critical acclaim with bestseller status.

The editor of the volume, novelist Elaine Canning, from Belfast, has created the first comprehensive guide to O’Farrell’s writings, incorporating the responses of reviewers, a biographical timeline, bibliography and a wide-ranging interview with the author herself. The essays (including two by Canning), provide thorough historical and literary context and establish connections to other contemporary work. These reveal compelling links of theme and approach between Coleraine-born O’Farrell, who was brought up in Scotland and Wales, and writers from Ireland and the diaspora (Sebastian Barry, David Park, Colum McCann, Kit de Waal). Especially resonant is the elucidation of the workings of time and place in O’Farrell’s narratives. Canning explains their often dizzying shifts of location through Marc Augé's concept of the ‘non-place.’ Novelist Ruth Gilligan contributes an analysis of the way in which O’Farrell’s characters apprehend places – and (after motherhood) their own bodies – as layers of distinct identities.

O’Farrell is now best known for Hamnet (2020), which – quite by coincidence – chimed with anxieties about the pandemic through its historically unlikely suggestion that Shakespeare’s son (whose name was a variant of Hamlet) died of plague. The novel seems to have marked a new departure, as O’Farrell’s previous fiction introduced bygone eras mainly through parental and grandparental backstories to a present-day situation. Her latest work, The Marriage Portrait (2022) concerns Lucrezia de’ Medici, sixteenth-century Duchess of Ferrara. Both of these recent fictions draw on literary tradition as much as real referents. Hamnet relies on the notion that, as Stephen Dedalus puts it in Ulysses, Shakespeare’s young son “died in Stratford that his namesake [might] live forever,” and the belief that Shakespeare himself took the part of the ghost in his most famous play. In The Marriage Portrait, Lucrezia is threatened with the prospect of becoming the “My Last Duchess” of Browning’s creepy poem (the actual historical figure may not have been murdered by her husband).


O’Farrell tells us in her memoir, she wanted to do a PhD on ‘the deceptively marginal roles of women in medieval poetry’

In a superb essay on Hamnet, Laurie Maguire gives a brilliant encapsulation of the patterns evident throughout O’Farrell’s work. The analysis continues the careful attention accorded to historical context elsewhere in the volume. Nicholas Taylor Collins embeds Hamnet within the language of Renaissance household arts and ideas of gender. Susan Alice Fischer’s tracing of the history of asylum incarceration (especially of women perceived as ‘difficult’) since the Victorian period, accounts for the reverberations generated by The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006). Fischer also evokes one of the most arresting features of O’Farrell’s writing: its emphasis on sense-perception. This aesthetic awareness acquires particular sharpness in the “atmosphere” of Hamnet (Maguire), and through the way the materiality of images is woven into the portrayal of characters in The Marriage Portrait (Canning).

What sometimes seems missing in this assiduously theoretically-minded collection is an acknowledgment – or more usefully, an exploration – of the sheer oddity of some of O’Farrell’s works. My Lover’s Lover (2002) was criticised for its implausible premise (hinging on a misinterpreted, easily clarified utterance). An essay by Sarah Gamble justifies rather than scrutinises this false start, arguing that the narrative is full of interferences of meaning, and that its subject is translation. A comparison by Edward Matthews between O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place (2016) and Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) seems to set these two texts in competition, claiming that, despite the globe-spanning rather than local alternations of point of view in O’Farrell’s novel, the moral fate of the central protagonist remains the key focus. Suppression of the almost telenovela-like qualities of some aspects of O’Farrell’s plots ignores a yet more suggestive possibility: That the sheer delirium of event and geographical movement stress-tests the very idea of literary character itself. When she cherished her own scholarly ambitions, O’Farrell tells us in her memoir, she wanted to do a PhD on “the deceptively marginal roles of women in medieval poetry”. A fantasy of centrality for a marginalised woman is also a recurring – and intriguing – dimension of O’Farrell’s work. An element of unruliness in her writings, which are always about people who wish to flee their own lives, escapes the academic discipline that is their faithful reader here.