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Review: Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf, 2021. 305 pp. $27

During the 1580s, a young Latin tutor from Stratford-upon-Avon falls in love with an eccentric woman who keeps a kestrel and has a wicked stepmother, whom she longs to escape. Will’s pretty eccentric too, considering that he has no use for his father’s trade of glove making or any idea how to earn a living, except that he longs to do it far away from paternal fists and constant criticism. The son’s favored profession may involve words, though he never says. Neither family finds any of this amusing.

Even so, the lovers get what they wish, sort of — they marry but live in the groom’s household, so the nasty father is ever-present. The young couple has a daughter, Susanna, and twins, Judith and Hamnet. But in 1596, the plague claims Hamnet’s life, blighting his parents forever and upsetting the balance of the mixed families. So, as the subtitle suggests, Hamnet is a novel about the plague, but that’s like saying The Great Gatsby is about money.

O’Farrell has given us an extraordinarily intimate, subtle portrait of: a courtship and marriage; the gossamer boundary between life and death; the longing for love and connection despite that; the emotional currents that guide and twist a family; and daily life in Elizabethan England. And oh, by the way, Hamnet’s also the finest novel I’ve ever read about Shakespeare, likely to remain the gold standard for quite a while, though his last name never appears, and most of the narrative belongs to Agnes, his wife.

Not Anne, you ask? Apparently not, for her father’s last will referred to her as Agnes. But neither that fact, nor that Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable names in that time and place, should get in anyone’s way. Our principal players, no matter what you call them, are the chief attractions, but this drama gives every performer his or her due. I particularly like Judith and Hamnet, and Will’s younger siblings, Eliza and Edmond, but I find no weak links anywhere.

Start with Agnes, whom some believe a witch, and whose herbal knowledge counts against her that way, though many people ask her for remedies. She sees everything and believes she should, taking her perceptive abilities for granted — though wisely, she doesn’t say so. Nevertheless, she has an odd streak, witness her disarming habit of grasping people by the flesh between first finger and thumb:

That muscle between thumb and forefinger is, to her, irresistible. It can be shut and opened like the beak of a bird and all the strength of the grip can be found there, all the power of the grasp. A person’s ability, their reach, their essence can be gleaned. All that they have held, kept, and all they long to grip is there in that place. It is possible, she realises, to find out everything you need to know about a person just by pressing it.

Normally, I’m skeptical about fortune-telling or otherworldly predictions, but Agnes believes in and practices them with utter conviction, and O’Farrell grounds her narrative in such extensive, well-chosen physical detail that I can’t argue. Agnes’s gift also explains why she trusts young Will on first meeting, and not only because he passes the thumb-flesh test. His way of speaking from and to the heart, in a style ten times more verbal than anyone else’s, yet without pedantry, shows her he takes his own flights of perception.

There’s no other obvious evidence of his poetic genius, but you can tell it’s earned and resides within him, so O’Farrell doesn’t stoop to having him quote a famous couplet or three. In a brilliant stroke and entirely realistic, Agnes has no clue what the theater entails, or what Will does with it in his lengthy absences in London, nor does she care. She’s more concerned with his emotional and physical constancy, which she can read in a glance, frown, or between the lines of a completely mundane letter about scenery, props, or actors.

Shakespeare’s Globe, a re-creation of the original, is a wonderful place to see a play. Notice the modern-day equivalent of Elizabethan “groundlings,” spectators who stand for the performance. (June 2018; my photo)

Otherwise, she fixes her gaze firmly on her children. Hamnet’s the dreamy boy who’s off in his own world, forgetful of chores, but a golden child whom everyone likes — a bit like his father, perhaps? And you know that Agnes, who loves her children fiercely and believes beyond persuasion that she can protect them from anything, will lose her footing completely after the plague enters the house.

O’Farrell renders her characters practically at corpuscle level, so their minds and bodies seem lived in to an extraordinary degree. The paragraph I quoted above is only one example of hundreds. To me, present-tense narratives have to strike the right note or seem precious, but Hamnet never falters. You might think that a moment-to-moment rendition, at length, would lose steam, or that revealing the boy’s death early on would spoil the tension. But Hamnet will prove you wrong, on both counts. The author selects her moments of intense examination carefully, but her approach proves that if your narrative plumbs deep meaning, it doesn’t matter how many minutes, days, weeks, or years pass. This novel, with luminous prose, beautifully rounded characters, and timeless themes will bowl you over.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its proceeds with independent bookstores.