Writer: Maggie O’Farrell
Publishing House: Knopf Publishing Group
Date of Publication: July 21st 2020 (first published March 31st 2020)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Then Judith is in a crowd. It is night- time, cold; the glow of lanterns punctuates the freezing dark. She thinks it is the Candlemas fair. She is in and also above a crowd on a pair of strong shoulders. Her father. Her legs grip his neck and he holds her by each ankle; she has buried her hands in his hair. Thick dark hair he has like Susanna’s. She uses the smallest of her fingers to tap the silver hoop in his left ear. He laughs at this – she feels the rumble of it, like thunder, pass from his body to hers – and shakes his head to make the earring rattle against her fingernail.’’
The frantic steps of a young boy disturb the peaceful summer day in a town in Warwickshire. His house echoes his almost erratic search for any member of his family. But the house is empty. His parents nowhere to be found. He begs the dusty roads of the village to bring him help because his beloved twin sister is dying. He begs Fate to exorcise the Black Rider who has decided to reside in their house, looking for a victim to snatch.
‘’The Latin verbs roll on and on around him, like a fenland fog, through his feet up and over his shoulders, past his ears, to seep out of the cracks in the window lead. He allows the chanted words to merge into an oral blur that fills the room, right to its high, blackened rafters.’’
Dear God, what a masterpiece!
When every ‘’writer’’ who wants to pass Historical Romance scribbles as ‘’Literature’’, when ridiculous plays and even more ridiculous film dare to meddle with the Bard and especially with his wife’s enigmatic figure, one can’t help being apprehensive. But not when you are in the gracious, blessed hands of Maggie O’Farrell. What can I possibly say about Hamnet? An ode to womanhood, motherhood, family and the fragility of daily life that should never be taken for granted.
‘’The trees could be seen from the back windows, tossing their restless heads on windy days, shaking their bare and twisted fists in winter.’’
O’Farrell brings us the tragic story of Shakespeare’s family, focused on his son and his wife, two incredible characters. Her writing is quiet, mystifying, haunting. A breath of a hazy, lyrical summer and the sadness of golden autumn. There is beauty and there are pain and Death. Physical loss and the thwarting of the dreams of youth. The loss of faith and the unimaginable horror of losing a child. Hamnet is rich in literary beauty and O’Farrell inserts brief, poignant scenes that define the tone and the spirit of the story. The terrifying figure of the Plague Doctor, a woman’s unbreakable bond with Nature, William’s wanderlust, the sequence of the coming of the pestilence in Warwickshire, a brother’s ache for his sister’s ordeal, a mother’s despair, a father’s helplessness, the cries for a ghost of a beloved presence.
‘’She has a certain notoriety in these parts. It is said that she is strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad. He has heard that she wanders the back roads and forest at will, unaccompanied, collecting plants to make dubious potions.’’
Perhaps the most demanding aspect in this novel is the characterization and O’Farrell creates wonders. Agnes (see the moving Author’s Note that clarifies why ‘’Anne’’ became ‘’Agnes’’) is an extraordinary character. Intelligent, brave, sensitive, deeply connected with Nature, firm in her beliefs. William is a gentle man, trying to balance his love for her and his calling. Hamnet is one of the most moving, developed and memorable characters. His pain and sense of helplessness and the fact that we know his fate will break your heart. His sisters, Susanna and Judith, are equally enchanting and beautifully drawn.
‘’I’ll walk backwards,’’ he says, backing away, ‘’so I can keep you in my sights.’’
‘’All the way to London?’’
‘’If I have to.’’
She laughs. ‘’You’ll fall into a ditch. You’ll crash into a cart.’’
‘’So be it.
It is said that this tragic loss was the driving force behind the creation of Hamlet. The Bard would be proud of Maggie O’Farrell’s masterpiece. And I don’t need to tire you more. The following extracts speak for themselves.
‘’Summer is an assault. The long evenings, the warm air wafting through the windows, the slow progress of the river through the windows, the slow progress of the river through the town, the shouts of children playing late in the street, the horses flicking floes from their flanks, the hedgerows heavy with flowers and berries.’’
‘’Autumn, when it comes, is terrible too. The sharpness on the air, early in the morning. The mist gathering in the yard. The hens fussing and murmuring in their pen, refusing to come out. The leaves crisping at their edges. Here is a season Hamnet has not known or touched. Here is a world moving without him.’’
‘’Night-time in the town, a deep, black silence lies over the streets, broken only by the hollow lilt of an owl, calling for its mate. A breeze slips invisibly, insistently through the streets, like a burglar seeking an entrance. It plays with the tops of the trees, tipping them one way, then the other. It shivers inside the church bell, making the brass vibrate with a single low note. It ruffles the feathers of the lonely owl, sitting on a rooftop near the church.’’
Many thanks to Knopf Publishing Group and Edelweiss for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.