It’s a novel about unbearable loss and terrible grief that feels deeply, vibrantly alive. The language is spare, yet lush, because to describe the world rightly can only be lavish, even when the words are simple. A monkey’s paws are described as “black and shiny, like boot leather, with nails like apple pips.” A feverish child’s face is covered with a “sheen of sweat making it glimmer like glass.” A woman in labor sees her child being born, “turning, twisting, slick, like a water creature, a shoulder, a long back, beaded with spine.” If you’ve seen these things before, you’ll recognize them. If you haven’t, you’ll see them now.
The narrative jumps from 1596 when an 11 year old boy sickens with the plague and 1580 when his mother, Agnes, meets and marries a young Latin tutor, who will eventually become Shakespeare. One of my favorite chapters zooms out from Agnes and her husband and children and follows the path of the fleas which will eventually infect Judith, Hamnet’s twin sister, then Hamnet. It starts dispassionately…
“For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet. The first is a glassmaker on the island of Murano in the principality of Venice; the second is a cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing for Alexandria on an unseasonably warm morning with an easterly wind.”
… And turns into a terrifying fairy tale chapter of chance encounters, as fleas jump from cats to monkeys to humans and back again but no one knows what causes the plague or why some people live, but most die. Hamnet was published in 2020 and was immediately critically acclaimed and popular… do I wish I had read it then? I’m not sure. Reading it now, with some distance, I was able to luxuriate in the prose and experience the grief as universal… illness comes and sometimes children die. In 2020, amidst the fear and pain we were witnessing… would reading a gorgeous book have been comforting or demoralizing? Did you read plague or pandemic literature in 2020 and 2021 and, if so, did it help? Or was it too soon?
The novel drops you right in and it took me a couple of chapters to get my bearings, but by Chapter Three I was irrevocably hooked. I fell deeply in love with the protagonist, Agnes, who is a healer. Knowing, thoughtful, watchful, brave, so real, but like no one I’ve ever met or read. Her husband, the Shakespeare character, is more relatable; fidgety, uncertain, impulsive, selfish and loving. Agnes watches her children and husband and quietly, almost magically, turns them towards safety and joy. Her husband watches her and their children and everything else around him and quietly, almost magically, turns what he sees into art. And O’Farrell quietly, almost magically turned it into this book.