Book Report: A novel of the Plague

HAMNET is a story that is deeply felt. Author Maggie O’Farrell compels the reader to experience what the characters experience. Every emotion, every wondering, and every attempt at magical thinking in the face of unspeakable loss is vividly described.

“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.”

For William Shakespeare, his wife, and his family it is the death of young Hamnet at age eleven that is such an event. The story is told from multiple points of view and over time, from before young William became Shakespeare until he wrote Hamlet. In some ways, it is the story of how each of us grieves and seeks both comfort and signs of our lost loved ones. The author imagines Hamnet’s death as a result of plague, although historic data is scarce, it’s a good guess.

Much of the story is told in the voice of William’s wife, Agnes. Though tradition calls her Anne Hathaway, she is referred to as “Agnes” in her father’s will, so O’Farrell has gone with that. Agnes is a healer, gifted with foresight and much sought after for herbal remedies in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“How frail, to Agnes, is the veil between their world and hers. For her, the worlds are indistinct from each other, rubbing up against each other, allowing passage between them.”

When it comes time for their first child, Susanna, to be born Agnes runs away to the forest to give birth there. Alone.

“She feels another pain coming, driving towards her, getting closer, like thunder over a landscape. She turns, she crouches, she pants through it, as she knows she must, holding tight to a tree root. Even in the throes of it, when it has her in its clutches, when it drives everything from her mind but the narrow focus of when it might end, she recognises that it is getting stronger. It means business, this pain. It will not leave her be. Soon it will not let her rest or gather herself. It means to force her out of herself, to turn what is inside outside.”

In the early years of their marriage, they live with or near her in-laws, John and Mary Shakespeare. The friction between them is palpable, but when needed they can and do pull together. They do so when Agnes births the twins–Hamnet and Judith–and again when the twins are stricken with plague.

“Whatever differences Agnes and Mary have—and there are many, of course, living at such close quarters, with so much to do, so many children, so many mouths, the meals to cook and the clothes to wash and mend, the men to watch and assess, soothe and guide—dissolve in the face of tasks. The two of them can gripe and prickle and rub each other up the wrong way; they can argue and bicker and sigh; they can throw into the pig-pen food the other has cooked because it is too salted or not milled finely enough or too spiced; they can raise an eyebrow at each other’s darning or stitching or embroidery. In a time such as this, however, they can operate like two hands of the same person.”

Agnes believes she has the power to forestall tragedy.

“The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.

“She will fill this child, these children, with life. She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way. She will defend her three babes against all that lies beyond this world. She will not rest, not sleep, until she knows they are safe. She will push back, fight against, undo the foresight she has always had, about having two children. She will. She knows she can.”

But of course, she can’t.

“She cannot understand it. She, who can hear the dead, the unspoken, the unknown, who can touch a person and listen to the creep of disease along the veins, can sense the dark velvet press of a tumour on a lung or a liver, can read a person’s eye and heart like some can read a book. She cannot find, cannot locate the spirit of her own child.”

The section of the book just after Hamnet dies is so poignantly written that I found myself tearing up. I felt what Agnes was feeling. I can’t remember the last book that did that to me.

Author, Maggie O’Farrell

To make her situatioin even harder to bear, William has been working in London for months. Agnes suspects he’s found comfort with another woman. I won’t offer any spoilers other than to say that the depths of the human heart—even, or maybe especially Shakespeare’s–are unknowable from the outside. And we must never assume motive or intentions. There is no one way to grieve. A good lesson: ask questions and listen to the answers. Recommend.

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