Hamnet is an 11-year-old boy living in Elizabethan England, whose sweet voice introduces us to this story, and from the start, we know that he will die of the plague.
Sound grim? Well, this book does deal with grief, but it is about so much more, all of it so beautifully done, with such resonance and timelessness, that it is worth the trip.
The Hamnet in this book is Shakespeare’s son, a fictitious rendering since little was written about the Bard’s personal life. Indeed, neither of the names “William” nor “Shakespeare” is ever mentioned in this book, which is one of the things that makes it so brilliant. Maggie O’Farrell simply takes the basics of what is known about Shakespeare’s personal life and elaborates on it with imagination and flair.
Oh, she takes liberties. It is well-documented, for instance, that Shakespeare at age eighteen married a woman of 26. Lore has it she was a harridan who forced the marriage by getting pregnant. And indeed, in Hamnet, Agnes was pregnant when they married. But O’Farrell portrays them as in love.
Likewise, history does claim that their son dies at the age of eleven but never gives a cause. O’Farrell attributes it to the bubonic plague, rife in the world in those late 1500s.
No no no. Please don’t back off at the mention of the plague. This book is about a very different one at a very different time. That said, one of the most powerful portions of the novel is an outlining of the journey of fleas – yes, fleas – that spread the bubonic plague.
So, this is wonderful. Likewise, the vivid, earthy portrayal of Elizabethan England. Likewise, O’Farrell’s portrayal of the supernaturally ethereal Agnes. And through it all, the prose is elegant, verging on the poetic.
At its heart, Hamnet is a story of love and loss – very human, very contemporary, very lovely.