Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Published by Tinder Press
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Literary
What never ceases to amaze me is the way one person can take the smallest notation from history, and turn it into a story of staggering depth and beauty that the rest of us would never have even considered. In this case, I’m referring to Maggie O’Farrell and her newest novel, Hamnet, the story of one real little boy in 16th century England, his mother, the bubonic plague, and the greatest playwright in the English language. The boy is Hamnet and he died of unknown causes when he was eleven, but O’Farrell’s fertile imagination brings him back as the creative spark that lights one of his father’s best-known tragedies, Hamlet.
Hamnet has a twin sister, Judith and when the novel begins she has fallen ill while they’re home alone. She has gone from fine to feverish with lumps under her skin around her neck and armpit. Even as an 11-year-old he knows what this is likely to mean. As he runs for a doctor we briefly meet his family, all out in the innocuous rhythm of a normal day. His mother picks herbs at a nearby farm, his grandmother and older sister are out making deliveries. His father is away in London working. Unable to find help, Hamnet returns alone to the person he knows best, his closest companion and waits.
From this urgent scene, Hamnet moves back 15 years to a young Latin tutor, daydreaming of another life, when he sees a woman so unusual he is irrevocably smitten. Despite being older than he is and he with no real trade, they marry. Her name is Agnes and she’s believed to be a witchy sort of woman, always in the forest, mixing potions, and with a strange way of looking at people and knowing what they’re thinking. In this way, she knows her husband is not meant for a life of tutoring. He needs the freedom to unleash the words filling his head, so she encourages him to go to London as often as he needs to pursue his dreams.
Except now, in the present, he is away and their daughter is dying. Until she is not and it is Hamnet who lays dead. The only son, the other half to Judith’s half. The father arrives home to find him gone and his wife mad with grief.
She cannot understand it. She, who can hear the dead, the unspoken, the unknown, who can touch a person and listen to the creep of disease along the veins…can read a person’s eye and heart like some can read a book. She cannot find, cannot locate the spirit of her own child.
Hamnet is extraordinary in the way of the finest writing. O’Farrell brings forth a word world where a flea’s voyage on a single ship from Madagascar to England has the same immediacy as all the permutations of love—new, between siblings, hard fought, as a parent, and dying. She picks up the smallest filament of a life, spins it into a brilliant, multihued thread, and weaves that into an unforgettable story. The final page of Hamnet is one of the most sorrowful and poignant I’ve ever read.
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