Book review: Hamnet by Maggie O`Farrell
HAMNET by Maggie O`Farrell. Hachette UK Books. 2020 release.
Hamnet, winner of the 2020 Women`s Prize for Fiction, is a lyrical eulogy in prose, dealing with the death of the eponymous character, the only son of a man from Stratford who was in the glove business, then went to London and turned (celebrated) playwright. He marries the fey Agnes (no, not Anne here) for love but distance puts its own pressure on the marriage, and when the two parents lose their eleven-year-old son, the book becomes a study in their struggle to survive, to live each day carrying the burden of their loss.
Literature students across the world know that William Shakespeare had a son called Hamlet/Hamnet, and lost him to some unrecorded illness. And of course, he later wrote a famous tragic play, and named it for his dead son.
Nowhere in this book is the Bard of Avon named; he is either Agnes` husband, the glover`s eldest son, Hamnet`s father. And what details we glean, we glean in an oblique fashion: he has a thick head of hair; he loves his children; he wears a hoop in his left ear; he dutifully sends his family money from London; he is thrifty; he thinks a lot about Agnes and his family back in Stratford; he is good at `clandestine listening;` he wants to break free of his domineering brute of a father.
However, it is Agnes who is the hero of the tale. This beautiful if strange woman — who walks abroad with a kestrel perched on her forearm, who has a special empathy with people and animals; who brews herbal concoctions that helps people heal, who is thought of as touched, peculiar, perhaps mad, a `scullion with wildness running in her veins,` — dominates virtually every page of the story. Just look at the way she is introduced to the reader, her future husband mistaking her for a young man: `He is wearing a cap, a leather jerkin, gauntlets; he moves out of the trees with a brand of masculine insouciance or entitlement, covering the ground with booted strides.`
Some passages are standout ones, like when Agnes is forced to deliver her twins at home rather than in the forest glade she yearns to go to, as well as the different but equally intense ways in which Hamnet`s surviving siblings mourn him. The grief of the bereft parents is near unbearable to read. When the playwright`s family move to their new home, they take Hamnet`s spirit with them. Everyone is forced to carry on, and carry on they do.
This is story-telling at its most poignant.