by Maggie O’Farrel
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life … here is a novel … so gorgeously written that it transports you.” —The Boston Globe
England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on. A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is just taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.
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Review by Melissa Dalton Martinez
“Hamnet” is a fictional account of infamous playwright and poet William Shakespeare and his family, based on true events. What was a mostly unknown story takes on new life through the striking and brilliant words of Maggie O’Farrel.
Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, tragically perished at age 11, though his cause of death was never specified. In this recreation, we find the reimagining of a boy who died young a long time ago, and whose name lived on in a famous play. It is easy to forget this boy was a real person, but O’Farrel’s characterization adds a new heart to the boy who was Hamnet.
Set in late 16th century England, the Black Plague inevitably plays a significant role. O’Farrel not only creates a plausible account of the plague, but a highly nuanced depiction of the human experience–of marriage, of growing up, of finding oneself, of sickness, of raising children, of losing children.
O’Farrel plays with time in a unique and graceful way, switching between two plots: the start, when a Latin tutor falls in love with an eccentric, bewitching, and mesmerizing farm woman, Agnes; and the present where Agnes is confronted with a mother’s worst nightmare: one of her children is sick with the plague.
Having grown up in the countryside, Agnes is wild and has a deep knowledge of healing and botany. The unnamed man who would become her husband has grown up at the hand of his abusive, glove-making father. Her husband cannot stay in this small town for long, his mind bursting with ideas of a whole other world, and eventually he goes to London, leaving behind Agnes and their three children, and finding incredible success as a playwright.
The writing is striking and vivid, there is a connection with each of the characters–a level of depth that is hard to achieve in one book with so many characters.
“Hamnet” was hard to put down and deserving of its awards and praise.