Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell

As the author tells us in her opening Historical Note: “In the 1580s, a couple living on 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.”  And in her closing Author’s Note, O’Farrell writes, “This is a work of fiction, inspired by the short life of a boy who died in Stratford, Warwickshsire, in the summer of 1596.”  

But the book is so very much more.  The story is not much about this boy, Hamnet, nor about his father, who is never named in the book, only referred to, first, as “the boy,” and later “the Latin tutor,” or “the husband.”  This is a story of Agnes, Hamnet’s mother, Shakespeare’s wife.  It is about her strangeness among women of her time; about her knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants; about her fierce love for her husband and her family; about her ability to sense what is wrong under the guise of the normal; about her ability to manipulate the patriarchal system to make happen what is best for the people around her. 

The flyleaf on the book jacket describes Agnes as “a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people.”  I would disagree – While her gifts as a healer and in understanding plants and potions are undeniable, I would argue that she has a profound understanding of herself and the people with whom she lives. 

At every turn, we see a woman so in touch with herself and with her community that she is able to defy community mores and truly be her own true self. 

This is a beautifully written work, full of such descriptions of sixteenth century English life that we can feel and smell and almost touch the streets, the houses, the farms.  But again, so much more.  These relative simply sentences capture better than anything I have ever read the reality of labor:  “She feels another pain coming, driving towards her, getting closer, like thunder over a landscape.  She turns, she crouches, she pants through it, as she knows she must, holding tight to a tree root.  Even in the throes of it, when it has her in its clutches, when it drives everything from her mind but the narrow focus of when it might end, she recognises that it is getting stronger.  It means business, this pain.  It will not leave her be.  Soon it will not let her rest or gather herself.  It means to force her out of herself, to turn what is inside outside.”  

And surely, the grief that comes with the death of her son is so magnificently written that we too are overcome. 

I wish I had the words to recommend this book as highly as I’d like to.  Alas, I don’t.  But it is among the best books I have ever read, a book that holds you so tightly that you don’t want to put it down, much less begin reading another.  It is a gem.

Jeanie Smith

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