On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?
Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.
Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.
Agnes is a wise woman, a temptress, a strange and wild woman with her predictions and potions and heady brews. The local people label her with crude names and disregard her as someone who will come to nothing, and they are led by her step-mother, a woman grown bitter and jealous. But Agnes is none of these things. She is simply different. Her thoughts and reasonings do not match the rhythms of others. She sees sense in natural remedies and comfort in nature, her dress striped with mud and the air pinking her cheeks.
Not so far away, a glove maker’s son is similarly labelled odd, peculiar, with poor prospects and little hope of a good and fruitful future. His mind is too full of words and imaginings. His mother is a stern woman, always busy with the younger half of her brood, his father is a bully, quick to temper, quick with his fists. When his mother sends him off teach to local children, he does not expect to meet a woman like Agnes, who is wild as the forest. The two grow close, drawn to one another for what makes others tut and shake their heads, for what makes them unusual.
Eleven years later, Agnes and the glove maker’s son are married and have three children, Susanna and twins, Judith and Hamnet. They are happy. Until their son dies of pestilence, and his absence is so fully formed it follows them, sits at the table with them, walks with them, makes them look always for a boy with his face close by. Four years later, and the father writes a play, a play he calls Hamlet. It is his loving attempt to ensure his son is not forgotten, to honour him, to draw him back, a little, even if it is just by the width of a name.
This book is a fresh and exquisitely unique portrait of Shakespeare’s life, a life about which there is very little knowledge. But for me, this is predominantly Agnes’ story. It’s about the ebb and flow of life, the love between man and wife, between brother and sister and how death delivers a blow that cannot be recovered from. Its honest and moving and inspiring. Hamnet examines the complexity of human emotion and reaffirms that life, all lives, are fragile things.
Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favourite authors. I feel very lucky to have received an advanced reading copy of Hamnet, her bold and exceptional step into historical fiction. It’s her rare talent that assembles such nuanced characters, enraptures the reader, binds them so tightly to the characters’ emotions, it’s with a banging heart, you turn the page, eager, excited and a little desperate for all that follows. She once more reminds us of the infinite power of the written word. Though no words of mine can suffice. Please read this, pass it into the hands of friends and family. It’s remarkable. My favourite yet!
To purchase a copy of this book, out 31st March, you can follow the links below. I’ve got my heart set on two of those glorious hardbacks (; One to re-read, one to keep perfect on the shelf.
About the Author
Maggie O’Farrell is the author of seven novels, AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, and THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award. Maggie has also written a memoir, I AM, I AM, I AM. She lives in Edinburgh.