I’m late to the party but I did finally arrive and I’m here to say that Hamnet by Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell, voted one of the best books of 2020, is officially my favorite read so far of 2022. If you have not read it, the benefit of arriving late, is that it is now available in paperback.
Hamnet is an historical novel about the young son of William Shakespeare and his wife, Agnes Hathaway. You might initially think it is a love story, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but it is less about the love of a man for a woman, and more about the love of a parent for a child. O’Farrell imagines much of the novel, as so little has been written about the world’s greatest playwright, but many of her speculations are based upon facts. The boy dies at the age of eleven; he is a twin; William is off in London writing and producing his plays for much of the boy’s life; Hamnet likely died of the bubonic plague — it is 1596 – but there is no historical record of the cause.
William Shakespeare is a young man of eighteen working as a Latin tutor after his shifty father’s business dealings cause a stain on the family name and fortune. Agnes is twenty-six and something of an enigma – she is a beekeeper and an herbalist and spends long days foraging for the flowers and herbs she uses in her healing concoctions. Some think her a witch. After her mother dies in childbirth, her father remarries and so, Agnes and her brother Bartholomew have three stepsiblings. Agnes and Bartholomew look out for each other. When her father dies, he bequeaths Agnes a dowry and the farm to Bartholomew – two gifts that will provide a path forward.
Will is immediately attracted to Agnes. Looking out the window while his young charges (who just happen to be Agnes’s young stepbrothers) recite their lessons, he sees her in the field with her falcon. She is other-worldly – beautiful and beguiling. They fall in love but there are obstacles to marriage. He is too young. His family has been disgraced. Agnes’ stepmother will not allow it. Until Agnes becomes pregnant. Two years after their eldest child, Susanna is born, Will and Agnes have twins: Hamnet and Judith.
When the novel opens, William is living in London and is a successful and established playwright. His family lives in Stratford because of Judith’s frail health and William comes to visit once or twice a year. The separation is hard on the children and the marriage. O’Farrell launches the novel with a growing sense of doom – young Hamnet is looking for his mother, his grandmother, or his eldest sister. While playing, Judith has suddenly fallen ill. She has taken to her bed. His mother is off tending to her bees, they have left their hive and she must coax them back. His grandmother and sister have gone to market. Hamnet must find help but the only one at home is his grandfather, whom he has been warned to give a wide birth – particularly when he is drinking.
The story moves backward and forward in time – from Judith’s sudden illness and Hamnet’s frantic search for help, to the early passionate days of Agnes’s and Will’s courtship, forward again to the twins lying on a pallet in front of the fire, both now stricken by the plague.
O’Farrell’s novel speculates why Shakespeare would write a play and entitle it Hamlet, the two names – Hamnet and Hamlet – interchangeable during that period, but in the famous play, it is the father who dies and the son who lives. The ending of this book will take your breath away. O’Farrell allows the tension in the marriage to build until it feels as though it will implode.
O’Farrell follows Agnes into the woods, into the field, and into the depths of her despair. Her writing is lyrical and layered, her characters are complex, and their relationships are complicated. There will be no easy passageway through this grief, and dear reader, you should be forewarned to have a tissue within reach, but you will be carried along by a mother’s love and a father’s remorse. “There will be no going back,” O’Farrell writes, “Time only runs in one direction.”
Listen to my reviews and author interviews on WTIP Radio 90.7, Grand Marais, MN or on the web at wtip.org.