I’ve been a huge admirer of Maggie O’Farrell’s work ever since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which won the Costa Novel Award, in 2011. I was intrigued by the premise of her new book, in which she delves further back into history than she has before to imagine the context of the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the effect it had on the playwright’s work – including, four years later, Hamlet.
Curiously, O’Farrell has decided never to mention Shakespeare by name in her novel, so he remains a passive, shadowy figure seen only in relation to his wife and children – he’s referred to as “the father,” “the Latin tutor” or “her husband.” Instead, the key characters are his wife Agnes (most will know her as Anne, but Agnes was the name her father, Richard Hathaway, used for her in his will) and Hamnet himself.
As the novel opens, 11-year-old Hamnet is alone in his grandfather’s glove workshop. His twin sister Judith has a fever and lumps at her neck and he is frantically trying to find an adult. But with his father in London, his mother off tending her bees and his grandfather’s indifference all too ready to shade into violence, there is no one to help. Although it’s Judith who appears to be ill with the Plague, readers know from the scant historical record that it is Hamnet who dies. Somehow, even though we see this coming, it’s still a heavy blow. Hamnet is a story of the moments that change everything, of regrets that last forever: Agnes will ever after be afflicted with a sense of having neglected her children just when they needed her.
Short chapters set in that summer of 1596 alternate with longer ones from 15 years before, when WS was engaged as a Latin tutor to the sons of a sheep farmer to pay off his father’s debts. Soon he became captivated by a young woman with a kestrel whom he assumed to be the family’s maid but learned was actually the unconventional daughter of the household, Agnes. She had a reputation as a herbal healer and was known to have second sight – just by holding someone’s hand, she could see into their past or predict their future.
There are some wonderfully vivid scenes in this earlier story line, including a tryst in the apple shed and Agnes going off alone into the forest to give birth to their first child, Susanna. My favourite chapter of all, though, is the central one that traces the journey of the pestilence from a glassmaker’s studio in Italy to the small Warwickshire village. The medical subplot of Hamnet has taken on a new significance that O’Farrell surely never predicted when she was immersing herself in the time period by undertaking falconry and mudlarking.
Although I remain a big fan, Hamnet is the least successful of the six books of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read. Her trademark third person omniscient voice and present tense narration, which elsewhere exude confidence and immediacy, here create detachment and even vagueness (“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs”; “Look. Agnes is pouring water into a pan”). The strategy for evoking the 16th century seems to be to throw in the occasional period prop, but the dialogue and vocabulary can feel anachronistic, as in “Boys! Stop that this instant! Or I’ll come up there and give you something to wail about”.
In comparison with historical fiction I’ve read recently by Geraldine Brooks and Hilary Mantel, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief. My reaction was lukewarm, but this should not deter readers from trying this wonderful writer – if not this book, then any one of her previous five.
My thanks to Midas PR and Tinder Press for the free copy for review.