O’Farrell, Maggie. “Hamnet”, Knopf, 2020.
Life Goes On
Maggie O’Farrell’s brilliant new novel, “Hamnet” is set in England, 1580 as the Black Death begins its threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young. Even though the end of days is near, life always goes on. We meet ayoung Latin tutor who has lived being bullied by his father. He has no money and is in love with Agnes, an eccentric young woman. Agnes walks around her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known all over the countryside as having gifts as a healer and understanding plants and potions better than she does people. When she marries, she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon and becomes a protective mother and the major force in the life of her young husband, whose career in the theater of London is gaining prominence. Suddenly, their young son has a sudden fever. Undoubtedly, you recognize whose these characters are but this is a new look at them as we learn of their marriage and read of a family that is torn part by grief and loss. This is also the story of, Hamnet, a boy who we know little about but whose name was given to one of the most famous and celebrated plays of all time.
Shakespeare’s marriage is complicated and troubled, yet there is still great love and passion. We see how the death of their son might have been the impetus for the writing of “Hamlet”, one of his father’s greatest plays. We also read how Hamnet’s mother deals with what is happening around her.
We know thatShakespeare wrote “Hamlet” four years after his son Hamnet died at the age of eleven. It is easy to see that Hamnet and Hamlet are the same name. Fir those of us who have been fortunate enough to experience the loss of a child, this is a look at that loss that tears at the heart and breaks it. Actually, this is a novel about grief and how a family deals with it.
As the story begins we meet Hamnet as he is greeted with an empty house. He then goes to his grandparent’s house but it is also empty. Silence is his only answer when he calls out. When he does find his grandfather, he is drunk and speaks abusively giving us an idea of what kind of life is in store for Hamnet.
Hamnet’s twin sister Judith is desperately ill Hamnet has been looking for somebody to help. We then go back in time to when Agnes and Shakespeare (who is never named) are to marry. We begin to move between past and present. In the past, we get the background of Agnes, her husband and the Plague and how Judith became ill. In the present, we read of the pain of losing a child. Written in gorgeous poetic prose, this is a book that moves quickly from page to page and that I was unable put down (in either definition of the phrase).