NOTE: The name “Hamnet” is interchangeable with “Hamlet.”
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
This is how good Maggie O’Farrell is: I loved Hamnet so much that I didn’t bat an eye when it abruptly veered away from its established characters to track the journey of a flea during the course of one deliriously wonderful chapter. A lesser writer would have had me foaming at the mouth and spewing words like waste of time and why are we here and what is the deal with this stupid flea. (I am an absolute delight.) But O’Farrell’s writing has a wild kind of magic to it and it sucked me in, which is why I am now sitting here telling you that the flea – clever and adept at survival – begins its journey as one of many fleas upon a captive monkey in Alexandria. From the monkey, it hops to a young boy from an English ship, and it sails from port to port until its great-grandchildren, nestled in a box of fine Italian glass beads, reach the town of Stratford. Here they encounter Judith Shakespeare, eleven-year-old daughter of the Bard, and make her acquaintance by infecting her with the bubonic plague. Her twin brother Hamnet, alone in a house inexplicably devoid of every adult who could help, tries everything he can think of but can do nothing for her in her sickness. This is the beginning of one story.
The other story, seamlessly intertwined with the present, begins fifteen years earlier at a farm called Hewlands. Agnes Hathaway – eldest daughter of the Hewlands estate, undercover healer, kestrel owner, possible sorceress, all-around badass – returns to her family’s farmhouse and is accosted by the eldest son of a local glover, an impetuous eighteen-year-old who has been drafted to teach Latin to Agnes’s younger half-brothers. She is initially lukewarm towards him, but their relationship develops into something more over the next several months, until they marry against the wishes of both their families. Their only advocate is John, father of the groom, who swindled Agnes’s father out of a considerable amount of wool some years ago and now sees this marriage as his chance to get out of debt. Living side by side with her new in-laws in a house that is both separate and inextricable from theirs, Agnes gives birth to a daughter, Susanna, and later to Hamnet and Judith. Realizing that her husband will never thrive unless he is given the chance to get away from his abusive father, she secretly arranges for him to be sent away to live in London. He is supposed to be expanding his father’s glove-making business, but he quickly becomes entranced by the theater company that buys his gloves. The rest is fairly obvious.
While her husband is making his way into literary history, Agnes and her children continue to live in the house built from and beside her in-laws’ house. The plan is for Agnes to bring the children to London when their father is financially secure, but their move is continually delayed by Judith’s plethora of illnesses. Sickly from birth, she is naturally susceptible to the worst variations of every illness her siblings catch, and it eventually becomes clear to everyone that she would never survive the four-day journey to London even under the best of circumstances. Owing to a vision she had before the birth of the twins, Agnes is convinced that Judith will die young and employs every skill she possesses to keep her child alive. Thus, she is completely blindsided when the undiagnosed Hamnet succumbs to the plague in his sister’s place. His father attends the funeral but returns to London soon enough, leaving his family to grieve. Unbound by grief, and following malicious interference from her stepmother, Joan, Agnes goes to London unannounced upon learning the title of her husband’s latest work. Though she originally intends to confront her husband, she in fact arrives in time to watch the play named after her son, Hamlet.
My usual instinct in any review is to spoil every inch of the story, but this is a story whose breadth defies summary. It is the story of a little boy who gives everything he has to save his sister, and the sister who grows up longing to bring her brother back. It is the story of a man and a woman, abused in different ways by different adults, building a new life for themselves against seemingly insurmountable opposition. It is the story of a family struggling to recenter itself after a shattering loss, and the strategies they each develop to come to terms with their grief. It is the story of a woman who thought she was marrying into financial stability, but quickly found that nothing in her life had prepared her for her semi-psychic stepdaughter; and, of course, it is the story of a flea that really did quite well for itself, all things considered. It is a story that made me cry, repeatedly, and before anyone had even died, curse it. O’Farrell’s writing is wondrous in places, slipping gracefully from character to character, story to story, illuminating as it goes. And yet, even with the premise and general subject matter, the book is not altogether grim. There are notes of subtle humor sprinkled throughout, and, since it is a book that includes Shakespeare, there’s at least one wonderfully in-character dick joke, inflicted upon an unsuspecting Agnes, and on her way to her own wedding no less. It’s a work of art.
I could go on for days about the story, but Hamnet‘s greatest strength lies in the richness and independence of its characters. Agnes is not merely Mrs. Shakespeare, or – possibly worse – “Hamnet’s mother.” She is the daughter of a yeoman and an untameable woman, a healer, a suspected witch whose herbs have cured at least half the town. (The other half probably just don’t know they need her yet.) Despite the restrictions placed upon her by her time, her culture, and her family, she manages to do things her way most of the time, which is a hell of an achievement in sixteenth-century England. She is a fully realized character with or without the Bard himself, who is never explicitly named but is always referred to as the tutor, the brother, the son, the husband, the father. The same is true of the other female characters: of Mary, her mother-in-law; Eliza, her sister-in-law; Susanna; Judith; even Joan, though we see relatively little of her. As little as I like Joan, I have to admit that her chapter is one of my favorites. She remains a steadfastly unlikable character, but through her eyes we get a brief glimpse of a couple of softer traits that are not obvious until she takes over the narration. Unlikable, but not wicked: most of the characters, with the exception of John, are not genuinely bad.
The only reservation I had is that the writing is styled in a way that has the potential to drive me nuts if done poorly, because it is wordy (again, Shakespeare) and has a tendency to use fifteen words in place of five. I wasn’t sure at first if this was a stylistic choice or if O’Farrell normally writes this way, but, having now read The Marriage Portrait, I can say that it was 100% a choice, and it was executed beautifully. The catch is that this is not a book to read when you’re half asleep. You need to be fully awake and paying attention, if only to appreciate the beauty of the language. This posed somewhat of a difficulty for me – I have always had focus problems, and it was hard for me to follow the book the first time I tried to read it – but it went a lot more smoothly the second time, possibly because I knew something about it by then and was accustomed to the style. I love a book that has reread value, and this is one that I feel I will come back to over and over again without getting tired of it. (I also feel like I may have to add O’Farrell to my auto-buy author list, but that’s a question for another day.)
At the end of the day, and in spite of my initial difficulties, this is absolutely the best book I’ve read so far this year. The writing is stunning, the stories deftly told, the characters thoughtfully drawn. This isn’t another tired reimagining of the most famous playwright in history. Though he narrates part of the story, it isn’t just his story. Instead of confining us to his view, his struggles, his ultimate triumph, O’Farrell has cast a far wider net in search of the family that history has mostly forgotten. Shakespeare has his exits and his entrances, and he plays many parts in this world his stage, but he never becomes the focus. He provides the context; the bulk of the story rests with his family. And that is exactly where it belongs.