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. 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.
But the reader knows, as the book begins with a note: “In the 1580s, a couple living in Henley Street, Stratford, had three children; Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins. The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.”
“Why on earth would I recommend a book about a child who dies of the Plague when we’re all at home worrying about a deadly virus?”
Reader, I was somewhat daunted by this subject myself, but this is Maggie O’Farrell and so I plunged in and was not disappointed. You always know as you are reading how things will turn out and this defuses a lot of the tension. What you are left with, then, is space to marvel at O’Farrell’s ability to conjure up a place and time, to create characters who are vivid with such rich interior lives, and events that seem as real as our regular Thursday night clap at our doorways. And everything touched by the phantasm of Shakespeare’s memorable characters, summed up eloquently by Rebecca Abrams in the FT: ‘Shakespeare’s plays are rarely referenced explicitly, but they ghost the novel — as angry fathers, touring actors, thwarted lovers, separated twins. In Agnes, too, we catch the trace of familiar heroines: a young woman striding through the forest dressed in boy’s garb; a motherless girl running barefoot across fields; a fairy queen working her magic with her potions and spells.’
I loved Hamnet. It’s one of my favourite things I have read this past year. Read it, I think you will love it too.
Listen in to bookshelf episode #67 for more discussion of Hamnet.