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BY MAGGIE O'FARRELL
The timing of Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel could not have been more poignant when first published in 2020. One of our favourite book club reads (in the Dens Dozen) 'Hamnet' tells the story of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet*, as told through the eyes of his wife Agnes**, who dies aged 11 from bubonic plague. Its uncanny relevance to the pandemic makes it an even more chilling read. But please don’t let the subject matter put you off. The Den loved this book – it is exquisitely written, totally absorbing and perfectly captures the period. Winner of Women's Prize for Fiction 2020.
Agnes has an unusual wayward childhood, steeped in nature. The young Shakespeare (although he is never mentioned by name in the book) falls in love with Agnes whilst working as a tutor for her step siblings. They marry young and quickly when she is pregnant with their first child Susannah. They move to Shakespeare’s family home in Henley Street, Stratford and go on to have twins, Judith and Hamnet. Recognising her husband’s depressed state of mind due to feeling trapped in the family home and business, she allows him to go to London to make his own way in the world. Agnes stays in Stratford with their three children where she spends her time mixing herbal cures and natural remedies for the sick.
O’Farrell’s portrayal of the plague in 1595, describes the journey of a cabin boy who touches a monkey carrying an infected flea whilst ashore in Alexandria, setting the scene for this tragedy. From fleas to rats, who reach every port, the plague makes its way to London and then Stratford via a much awaited parcel of exotic glass beads. Mirroring the deadly Covid-19 virus, the timing of this release and the beautifully story-telling is extraordinary.
O’Farrell has a wonderful style of writing which is magnetic and compelling. Hamnet's death is well documented and naturally his play Hamlet as well as his other tragedies came about as a way of expressing his grief. O’Farrell gives us her version of Agnes’s story. It is moving and heart-rendering. When you have finished the book you need a moment to reflect and when you next get the chance to see the play Hamlet, it will perhaps give you a further dimension and richness to the tragedy.
Just as Shakespeare’s writing continues to be performed with such relevance, O’Farrell has produced a story that is definitely a book of the moment and a book of our time.
'Hamnet' has recently been adapted by the RSC for the stage. Due to arrive at the Garrick this autumn.
* Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name and were interchangeable in the 16th & 17th century.
**Anne Hathaway, the name we famously know as Shakespeare's wife, was also called Agnes.
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