Because I began and continued to read Maggie O’Farrell’s new book, “Hamnet,” in bed for several nights in that liminal space between awake and sleep, I utterly failed to appreciate what a wonder it is. But I woke up to its pleasures about a third of the way in, and the next day began to devour it properly. I have loved Maggie O’Farrell’s books and now also this one – for her language and the scope of her imagining.
Despite the title, the crucial, central character in the book is Agnes, the name O’Farrell gives Anne Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s wife. She’s a healer and herbalist, an outsider, a woman who at 26, married the 18-year-old Latin tutor, destined to become playwright to the centuries. The tale alternates between the book’s present time, when Hamnet, their only son, is 11 with the time of Agnes’s youth – beloved mother and wicked stepmother, meeting her husband, and the birth of their three children.
Replete with Shakespearean themes of death, grief, the supernatural, twins, mistaken identity and the natural world, O’Farrell wholly imagines the life of the family Shakespeare left behind (paying only infrequent visits) as he found his way in London. O’Farrell uses the everyday details of forests (hazelnuts are “dust-jacketed pearls”) and kitchens, herbs (“extract of valerian and tincture of chickweed) and animals, childbirth, in-laws, and houses.
And she writes specifically of tragedy, for Hamnet is felled by an unnamed pestilence, most probably bubonic plague. (O’Farrell’s rich recreation of the infection’s journey, via generations of fleas who voyage the world, is harrowing during our plague.) Hamnet’s death brings an unbearable grief to Agnes.
In the end, Agnes’s countryside and the playwright’s teeming London town collide – and also the griefs of mother and father – in the crowded pit of the Globe Theatre, during a production of “Hamlet,” four years after the death of Hamnet.
It’s a marvel of a book – worthy of a wideawake reading.