Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Read: 24 August - 4 September 2020
Release year: 2020
After reading the Maggie O'Farrell's incredible memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, I was curious and excited to read one of her novels. Maggie's most recent novel is Hamnet, in which she gives her interpretation of the life and untimely death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet. While the title suggests that the little boy is the main character in the book, the majority of the story centres around Hamnet's eccentric mother Agnes. Funnily enough, Shakespeare himself doesn't even have a name in the book and is referred to as 'the husband', 'the father' or 'the Latin tutor'. He is simply a background character in this novel. This book is more than just a summary of someone's life, it also beautifully describes a family in grief and how they deal with this.
The book opens with 11-year-old Hamnet desperately searching everywhere for help as his twin sister Judith has suddenly fallen ill. His mother, grandmother, aunt and big sister are nowhere to be seen, neither at home nor in the town, while his father is working on his plays in London. When the only person he can find in the house is his drunken grandfather, Hamnet tries his luck at the physician's house, but to no avail.
At the same time we learn the backstory of Hamnet's mother Agnes. Having lost her mother at a young age, Agnes is known as the weird, unconventional girl in town as she spends most of her time in the forest. People think she is gifted with powers and are at the same time fascinated and scared of the girl walking around with a big bird on her shoulder. Her relationship with her stepmother is just as bad as in any other tale. When she meets another misfit, the Latin tutor who grew up in an abusive home, the two fall in love. After falling pregnant out of wedlock, their families decide they should get married as soon as possible.
After her marriage, Agnes moves in with her husband on the property of her new family-in-law, escaping from her stepmother's harmful household only to find herself trapped under the influence of her in-laws. Agnes gives birth to a daughter Susanna and two years later to twins Hamnet and Judith. Realizing her husband is unhappy to follow in his father's footsteps, Agnes makes him go to London to pursue a career as a play writer.
As we return to Hamnet's story, we learn that Judith has fallen ill with the plague. After returning to an empty house without any help, Hamnet feels defeated until his mother and sister finally return. However, it turns out there is not a lot they can do. All they can do is wait for the inevitable. Hamnet, though, decides he is going to take Judith's place so that his sister can live. During their childhood they played this trick multiple times, as they look quite similar and people have trouble keeping them apart. Hamnet switches clothes with his sister and takes her place in the bed. When Agnes wakes up in the middle of the night, she finds that her daughter is recovering from her illness, but to her horror she realises that her son is now dying from the plague.
Hamlet, Act V, scene ii:
I am dead:
...draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story
Maggie devotes an entire chapter to how the plague actually reached Agnes' children. Normally this chapter would have already been very interesting, but especially in this COVID-19 era this leaves a mark. She describes the journey of the disease spreading through humans and animals. Fleas that spread through monkeys, cats, rats, shipmen, a cabin boy, a glassmaker and finally end up in a box of the glassmaker's glass beads. This box is delivered to Agnes' house where Judith is the one to open it.
For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.
The last and longest chapter of the book is about the period after Hamnet's death, in which Maggie describes how the family is grieving. She writes about the initial shock after his death, how Agnes prepares her son's body for burial, how her husband tries to get home in time but fails, about the funeral itself and how Agnes deals with her grief after her husband returns to London. These events are all very tragic and devastating, but Maggie wrote them down in such a beautiful way. I loved how she dedicated such a major part of this book to the grieving process. I am not surprised this book won the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction.
Judith, upstairs, Susanna, next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he? Here, she tries to tell herself. Cold and lifeless, on this board, right in front of you. Look, here, see. And Hamnet? Where is he?