Historical Fiction Literary Fiction

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

23 May 2020
Hamnet Book Cover Hamnet
Maggie O'Farrell
Historical Fiction
Tinder Press
March 31, 2020

A stunning new departure for Maggie O'Farrell's fiction, HAMNET is the heart-stopping story behind Shakespeare's most famous play. On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home? Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week. Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker's son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

I came to reading this book as someone who is not a Shakespeare aficionado. I have over the years seen various productions of Shakespeare plays, some wonderful, and some not so much so. I have never held a season’s subscription to a local Shakespeare company, but I am an admirer of Washington DC’s Folger Theater and Library. I did not come to the reading of this book with any deeply held beliefs or opinions about Shakespeare. I am an admirer of Maggie O’Farrell and was quite taken by Simon Savidge’s, Savidge Reads, reaction to the book. Savidge, like me, is not a Shakespeare buff but I trusted that it was a book I would love.

O’Farrell builds a story in which Shakespeare, who is never named, is a peripheral character. He is important as the husband of Agnes, and father of three children. No one in his household, extended family, or town, understands exactly what he does in London. It is the end of the 16th century, and London is a long and somewhat arduous journey. The spotlight is on Agnes, a rebellious young woman, who continues her unorthodox ways even after she marries and becomes a mother. Her most fierce protector is her brother Bartholomew, and he is constant even though he has his own family. Agnes practices herbology and doles out mixtures and simple cures to those who seek her help. At times, this leads her to neglect her own children.

In this time of pandemic, a story within this story, of the transmission of a deadly fever, that travels along the trade routes from North Africa, the Middle East, around the Mediterranean, and back to England, reminds readers that pandemics and plagues have been on earth for centuries, and likely thousands of years. With human movement and activities, so go diseases. In this case, it is a fever that quickly kills those who get it. Two of Agnes’s children fall ill, when their father is far away, and hasn’t been home in months. One of them dies, before he can get home.

O’Farrell’s writing is rich, and completely pulls the reader into the time and place she is describing. The reader can sense the chaos of London of the time, and the pandemonium that attendees at a play in the Globe felt as they went along for the ride. But above all this, O’Farrell’s ability to convey the wrenching grief a parent feels at the loss of a child is unmatched in anything I have read to date. And this is not a few pages, because the grief over this child’s death seems unlimited. It becomes the story, and we learn that each -mother, father, sibling – bear their grief in different ways.

Perhaps there are other stories about Shakespeare and his wife and children. I haven’t read them. But O’Farrell’s will grab you, and won’t let go soon. This book is highly deserving of its place on the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. https://www.womensprizeforfiction.co….

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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