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Hamnet

July 30, 2021

July is my favorite month. I love the comfort of the heat, the way it lets my muscles stretch out and relax, and the humidity that curls my hair and turns visible at dawn and dusk. I love the green of everything, the long days, the sunshine, cicadas, lightning bugs, butterflies, grasshoppers, birdsong, gladiolus, sunflowers, roses. So I saved Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet to read in July, since everybody knows the boy dies. I can feel sad without getting depressed in July.

And indeed, it was sad when he died, very sad, put down the book and blow your nose sad. The rest of it was a revelation, though. There were so many things to enjoy and admire, most particularly the way O’Farrell makes Agnes and her family the focus of most of the action, with her husband at the periphery, and the way we see how it could have all happened around the few details that we do know (the second-best bed makes an appearance).

This novel is a good example of how to skip from the present timeline to a previous one and then go back and forth to make it narratively suspenseful. We are introduced to Hamnet when he is in the house alone with his twin sister, who has just fallen sick, and then we skip back to the story of his grandmother, Agnes’ mother, who wandered in the forest and grew herbs. After that we get the story of how young Will Shakespeare met Agnes, the oldest daughter on the estate where he was tutoring, and they fell in love.

The details make the story come alive, like the changes Will’s mother Mary sees in the house after Agnes comes to live there:

“the candlewicks are trimmed, without Mary having to remind the maids. The table linens are changed, again without asking, the wall drapes free of dust. The plateware is spotless and shining….There are holly branches in a jar in the hall. Cloves studded into sweetmeats in the cookhouse, a pot of fragrant leaves that Mary doesn’t recognize. There are gnarled and soil-heavy roots drying in the eaves of the brewhouse, and berries on a tray. A pile of starched and pressed collars lies waiting on the landing. The pigs in their pen look suspiciously scrubbed and pink, the hens’ trough is clean and filled with water.”

The characterization of Will’s father as short-tempered and controlling helps to explain why he has to go off to London despite his love for his wife and children. And the characterization of Hamnet as a twin who can’t imagine living without the other one is an interesting way to tell this story. Hamnet thinks he can’t live without Judith, that “it is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain.” In this version, Hamnet is the mischievous twin who decides “to hoodwink Death, to pull off the trick he and Judith have been playing on people since they were young: to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other.”

The grief of Hamnet’s mother is described at length and with details that will shrivel up the soul of any mother, like that “she, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare. From habit, while she sits there near the fireplace, some part of her mind is tabulating them and their whereabouts: Judith, upstairs. Susanna, next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again.”

As Agnes washes her dead son’s body “she runs her fingers over the scar on Hamnet’s arm where he fell from a fence at Hewlands, over the puckered knot from a dog bite at a harvest fair. The third finger of his right hand is calloused from gripping a quill. There are small pits in the skin of his stomach from when he had a spotted pox as a small child.” It seems like such a comfort, one I’ve experienced when preparing a pet for burial in the woods in back of our house. Am I the only one who reads this passage and wishes we could still do it for the people we love, too?

The novel ends with a performance of Hamlet, providing a perfect ending and an epitaph to a boy’s long-ago and too-brief life. It was so long ago. Look, today the sun is shining and the river is running over rocks so merrily, making an age-old music.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2021 2:43 am

    Very nice review. I saw a movie along similar lines, I wonder if it was based on this book? Not sure, I have to check, it might have been a BBC production.
    As for the weather, it all sounds great, I am just not a big fan of hot weather…

    • July 30, 2021 9:42 am

      There’s a movie adaptation in the works, but there must be a lot of versions of stories like this one, about Shakespeare’s son who died.
      I am a very big fan of hot weather, as you can tell!

  2. July 30, 2021 4:44 am

    Lovely review. I’m a fan of Maggie O’Farrell but I’ve not read this yet, it sounds really accomplished and so moving.

  3. July 30, 2021 6:58 am

    Do you think I would enjoy this? I’ve enjoyed Maggie O’Farrell in the past, but I also don’t tend to love historical fiction, so I’ve been on the fence.

    • July 30, 2021 9:45 am

      I think you would. I know I’ve talked with other book bloggers about how often the back-and-forth in time shifting of the narrative point of view doesn’t work very well, but this narrative really shows how effective it can be when done right.

  4. July 31, 2021 12:50 am

    I’m surprised that you loved the humid. July kept me indoors a lot. Love your review of this book. I haven’t heard of it and I don’t think I can handle the sadness.

    • July 31, 2021 7:59 am

      I’ve always lived in very humid places, and the few times I’ve visited somewhere it’s dry–like Colorado and Arizona–I’ve found it disconcerting.
      The book is very sad. Beautifully told, but the whole point is that Hamnet dies (and then Shakespeare writes a play to immortalize him).

  5. July 31, 2021 9:13 am

    It sounds beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s good that you have a month where you can read sad books without getting depressed. For me I think it would be more in the winter; summer bleeds my attention away and I’m not able to give emotionally wrenching books their due.

    • August 1, 2021 8:24 am

      This one is less wrenching than just sad. The boy’s fate seems inevitable but you see it through the parents’ eyes.

  6. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    July 31, 2021 5:15 pm

    Lovely write-up: one of my favorite books of the past couple of years.

    • August 1, 2021 8:25 am

      Thanks; I can see why it’s one of your favorites.

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