TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.
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.
William Shakespeare has to be England's best known playwright - four hundred years later his plays are still performed regularly, and he's there in every other English and drama lesson at school. Probably few of us know anything about the man himself though, his private life, and the loss which (some scholars say) lies behind his finest play Hamlet. This is where Maggie O'Farrell's first venture into historical fiction takes us - into the annex, next to his parents' house where Will and Agnes live (though he spends most of his time in London) with their son and two daughters, and where tragedy is waiting to strike.
This latest work of Maggie O'Farrell's brings all the empathy and understanding that I've found in her previous work and applies them to the Shakespeare family. As the hours tick down, as Judith takes to her bed feeling ill, and her brother Hamnet desperately tries to find his mother, another thread moves back to the first meeting of Will and Agnes, their passionate love affair and rather pressing marriage, and the bond which has kept them together even though Will has fallen in love again - this time with the theatre.
O'Farrell captures the period and the characters brilliantly. The reader is right there, alongside the women collecting eggs, tending to herb beds, and making tinctures and ointments ready for times of need, with the children trying to skip their chores and play instead, following after them round the house and garden or sneaking into the adjoining workshop of Shakespeare's father, where furs and skins are turned into gloves, from the plain serviceable pairs to the fashionable finery aimed more at show than hard wear.
Then lives are stopped by tragedy and all-encompassing grief - and O'Farrell is spot on in its description. I've lost family members over the past couple of years, and I felt that here I'd found someone who knew the emptiness and immense feeling of loss, who understood how I've felt for months, and could put it into words for me.
This is possibly O'Farrell's best work (to date, who knows what will come next?) but it just seems unfortunately timed. I think for some readers, as we head into months with corona virus dominating our lives, it may just be a little too close to home.
Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Tinder Press
Genre - Adult historical fiction,