Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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Dear Brother,

I am sorrie to tel you that Judith, your daughter, is verie sick. We belief she has not manie hours left to her. Pleafe come bak to us, if you can. And make hast.

God fpeed to you, dearest brother.

Your loving sister,

Eliza

To get the obvious out of the way first, ‘Hamnet’ is named after the son of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. But this is not a novel about Shakespeare or writers or plays or literature. It is a novel about grief and loss and it is beautiful.

We first meet Hamnet moving through the streets of Stratford, his twin sister blistered with the buboes of plague, his mother (Agnes, a name Hathaway was known by) in the forest attuning to nature, extracting the supernature; his father away in London working in some way in some sort of theatre.

The first part of the book straddles this plague stalked time with the early years of Agnes and Shakespeare (although never named as such and almost voiceless throughout the book). Agnes, a girl born of nature, enriched with earthly powers, witchy and afeared in equal measure; ‘The Tutor’, a bright lad with ambitions far beyond the family glove business, the two coming together as a force of nature, against family wishes and hopes. It is a love story as tragedy, for we know (or think we know) how it will end.

These tangents lead to wonderful flights of fancy: the carefully crafted foreboding tale of how a flea from Alexandria brings plague to Hamnet’s twin; the myths of Agnes’s childhood, her flesh pressing fortune telling talent, her being at-one with a kestral.

And this is important for it is Agnes who dominates the book; her perspective dominates and, when tragedy strikes it is through her eyes and her emotions that we bear witness.

‘Agnes sniffs the cloth, she sniffs the air. She presses her nose to her sleeve, then to Susanna’s smock. She walks about the room. What is it? It smells like dying flowers, like plants left too long in water, like a stagnant pond, like wet lichen. Is there something damp and rotting in the house?

She checks under the table, in case one of Gilberts dogs has dragged in something. She kneels down to peer under the coffer. She puts her hands on her hips, standing in the middle of the room, and draws in a dep breath.

Suddenly she knows two things…She is with child, she feels. There will be another baby on the house by the end of winter…

She also knows that this smell, this rotten scent, is not a physical thing. It means something. It is a sign of something  – something bad, something amiss, something out of kilter in her house. She can feel it somewhere, growing, burgeoning, like the black mould that creeps out of the plaster in winter.’

The final part of the book concerns itself with repercussions: a mother’s grief for her child; parents struggling to find a way to cope; a couple struggling to understand; love trying to find a way. This section could be maudlin and depressing, but O’Farrell’s clear, simple prose gives it a lightness of touch, a balance which in the midst of darkness allows a flicker of light to shine. I left the book not sad but forlorn: I had witnessed the depths of grief but somehow the human spirit remained; I had learned something profound and remarkable about the human condition, a trait shared by the great novels and a category in which ‘Hamnet’ is destined to rest.

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