Maggie O’Farrell has magnificently tackled a little-known story. William Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son Hamnet died of the plague in 1596 in Stratford, England. He was survived by his mother, twin sister Judith, older sister, and his father, as well as various other members of his family. But nothing was ever spoken of this. Was kept silent. Until now, when O’Farrell brings forth with this marvelous new novel that shows the depth of grief and the strength of the human spirit.
The story begins with Hamnet finding his twin sister Judith has suddenly become very ill. He goes for help but his entire family seem to have vanished just when he needs them most. Judith lies on a pallet in an upstairs bedroom falling deeper into the throes of the bubonic plague. But they don’t know this at the time.
O’Farrell manages to introduce us to Hamnet’s mother Agnes ( pronounced Ann-yis ) as she tends to her bees in a field a mile away not knowing her child is desperately ill and needing her attention. She’s well-known as a healer and can even see into a person’s future ……all the while you, the reader, find yourself tensing up and wishing to God she would hurry even as you know the outcome.
Although William Shakespeare is never named as such in this story, we know it is he who is Hamnet’s father. And why the name Hamnet? It’s a variation of Hamlet. We are shown the life of the most famous play-right who was first a Latin tutor who married a free spirit and mostly lived in London.
Judith and Hamnet loved playing tricks on their family by swapping identities. This is a pretty common way for twins to have fun with people who think they know them so very well. So when Judith is lying dying, Hamnet decides to trick the Gods by pretending to be his twin. It’s tragic. It’s heartbreaking.
As Agnes prepares her son’s body for burial any mother can not help but be brought to her knees with grief. And the thoughts that are careening through her head are brought to the page in a way that is so real it hurts. The grief, the guilt, the death.
I try to avoid books that deal with the death of a child. Too painful. And there are those of you who will avoid this book for that reason. But this story is one to wrap yourself up in. It’s important. I believe this book is one of those that is bound for glory. It’s an OMG book.
About halfway through the book several pages are dedicated to the events that carry the pestilence to England and to the home of Judith and Hamnet. These colorful pages, a dozen or so, will change the way you think about how disease is passed from person to person and from animal to animal. Here we are going through a global pandemic of monumental proportions and I’m actually reading about the bubonic plague that took place four hundred years ago. Utterly up front and way too personal. I have read and reread these passages over and over. Amazing.
This is a book that will be widely read and should be on every bookclub list for discussion in the coming months. I can almost smell a nod for Pulitzer or Man Booker or both. Be sure to put it on your list.
You can purchase a copy of HAMNET from Copperfish Books. They are on the shelves right now and discounted 20%. Just a heads’ up. Elaine Newton has read HAMNET and loved it!
Maggie O’Farrell is an Irish born writer who has many a great novel under her , however, this is her best!