WINNER OF THE 2020 WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION - THE NO. 1 BESTSELLER 2021
'Richly sensuous... something special' The Sunday Times
'A thing of shimmering wonder' David Mitchell
TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.
On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a sudden fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?
Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.
Neither parent knows that Hamnet will not survive the week.
Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright: a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.
O'Farrell (This Must Be the Place) concocts an outstanding masterpiece of Shakespearean apocrypha in this tale of an unnamed bard's family living in Stratford-upon-Avon while his star is rising in London. In 1596, 11-year-old Hamnet's twin sister, Judith, comes down with a sudden, severe illness. Hamnet searches urgently for help, and is treated cruelly by his drunken grandfather, John, a glove maker. Hamnet's mother, Agnes, known and feared for dispensing mysterious homeopathic remedies, is at Hewlands, her family's farmhouse. When she returns home, Judith shows undeniable signs of the bubonic plague, and the diagnosis is confirmed by a doctor. O'Farrell then tells of Agnes and her husband's passionate courtship, and of Agnes's stepmother banishing her from Hewlands after she becomes pregnant. The couple moves into a small, drafty addition to his parent's house, where Agnes's husband grows restless and melancholic in his overbearing, volatile father's presence, and she schemes to send him to London to expand John's business. Throughout, Agnes possesses keen premonitions and is deeply troubled when she gives birth to twins after their firstborn daughter, which contradicts a vision she'd had that the couple's two children will stand by her deathbed. More disturbing, and unbelievable to her, is Hamnet and Judith's sudden trading places on the sick bed. O'Farrell brilliantly explores the married couple's relationship, capturing Agnes's intuition that her husband is destined for great things in London, along with her frustration that his world is unknown to her. The book is filled with astonishing, timely passages, such as the plague's journey to Stratford via a monkey's flea from Alexandria. This is historical fiction at its best.
To be or not to be
British. Born Northern Ireland, now lives in Scotland. Award winning novelist. Her last book, 'This Must Be The Place' (2016) was very good, as was her debut 'After You'd Gone' (2000). This, her eighth novel, is shortlisted for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction.
Stratford (upon Avon)
The late 16th century
Agnes (aka Ann as in Hathaway) takes her herbs, potions, and child rearing seriously. In the 1580s, she and her playwright hubby (common law) Will settle down together and have a daughter Susanna, followed by twins Judith and Hamnet. Agnes and the kids live in what passed for a duplex back in the day, with her in-laws next door. Will spends much of his time in London or thereabouts, putting on plays and trying to avoid "the pestilence" (aka the Black Death). In 1596, 11-year-old Hamnet dies, cause unknown. Four years later the playwright writes what is arguably his finest work, which he calls Hamlet. (The spellings Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable in 16th century Warwickshire apparently.) In the late 2010's a British playwright sits down to write a fictionalised version of young Ham's death (of pestilence in case you were wondering) and it's aftermath. The end.
Agnes, the kids, the immediate family are all exquisitely drawn. Ms O'Farrell writes about sisters better than almost anyone, and does so again here.
Third person, various POVs
Lyrical doesn't come close. If literary embellishment is your thing, it doesn't get much better than this. If it isn't, you might learn something.
Ms O'Farrell is a superb writer. Sadly, I'm not a fan of historical fiction of the Tudor period (I have yet to finish a Hilary Mantel book), otherwise five stars.
Thoroughly enjoyed this fictional account of the story behind Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Very well written - would recommend.