When is the death of a child beautiful? When it’s a story written by Maggie O’Farrell.
It is 1585 and the woman Agnes settles with her husband in Stratford. They have three children – a daughter, Susanna, and then fraternal twins, Hamnet and Judith. Her husband is gone more often than not, to London, where he works with some players.
In 1596 the boy, Hamnet, dies at age 11. Agnes would like to curl up and disappear in her sadness, but still has her daughters to care for. Her husband has been virtually estranged from the family, living and playing in the larger city, where he has even gained attention from royalty. But word gets to him of something bad having happened and he hurries home to learn of his son’s death. Grief hits him, just as it did Agnes at the time, and the reader experiences a parents grief over the loss of a child for a second time.
Four years later, Agnes sees her son’s name as the title of a play, Hamlet, written by her husband. So often the death of a child tears a family apart. Can Agnes and her husband find forgiveness and repentance in the shadow of their son’s death and rebirth as what will become one of the most famous -theatre characters of all time?
Who we are talking about is pretty evident. If you are confused because you thought William Shakespeare’s wife’s name was Anne Hathaway, she was named “Agnes” in her father’s will. Also, the names “Hamnet” and “Hamlet” are considered to be interchangeable.
Although the book is named for the young son who dies at age 11, this could just as easily be titled, Agnes, as it really focuses on her as wife, mother, and the holder-together-of-family while her younger husband is carousing and most likely living an adulterous life some distance away.
Author Maggie O’Farrell’s prose is hauntingly beautiful, and it’s this writing that will draw the reader in. It is the recognition that we are reading about the family of William Shakespeare that will make us feel like we’re reading something pretty special, and it’s the reactions surrounding the death of a child that will bridge the divide between the modern reader and life in the 16th century.
And while I enjoyed my reading of the book, three days after I’ve finished it, I can’t tell you too much about the other characters or the motivation for the story. Do we read a book like this to experience grief? To experience the skill of a writer’s prose? To catch a glimpse of life 400 years ago? To note that what it means to be human hasn’t changed much? A little bit of all of these?
I enjoyed the read and I would recommend it, but ultimately this book is exactly what it seems to be on the surface and it’s the writing, not the story, that makes this a strong read.
Looking for a good book? Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, is a poetic novel of a parent, a child, grief, and the ode to a child that will never let anyone forget the child’s name.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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author: Maggie O’Farrell
publisher: Tinder Press
hardcover, 372 pages