Hamnet, Maggie O'Farrell
Knopf - 2020
I don't read a lot of historical fiction but, the weird thing is when I do, I tend to enjoy it. The same was true of Hamnet. "Hamnet" was the son of William Shakespeare, although his name is never mentioned in the book, instead there are only references such as: Agnes' husband, the glovemaker's son and the Latin tutor for the reader to make the connection.
The story is told from the POV of Agnes, Hamnet's mother. From the beginning of the novel there was a feeling of desperation as Hamnet searches for his mother, because it is his twin sister, Judith, who is very ill. His mother is away from the home and his father is working in Stratford-upon-Avon. Ironically, it is Hamnet who ends up dead at the age of 11 in 1596 from what was believe to be the bubonic plague or Black Death.
The story works in many ways, although the writing took a bit of getting used to. The writing is clearly literary fiction at its finest. I must say I struggled for the first 25 pages or so with the third person, present tense POV. The story alternated between Hamnet as a child and his short life and how Agnes meets Will, their marriage and the birth of their children etc. Agnes is a strong, smart woman full of passion and love for all of her family. The aftermath of Hamnet's death strains the marriage and causes those left behind to ask "what if?" wondering whether the boy's death could have been prevented.
You need not be into Shakespeare to enjoy this story. It is a story about a mother's love for her children and about loss and grief. Heavily character driven, all of the characters were well explored, except perhaps the oldest child Susannah. The details of the town and home were beautifully written. There was a lot of foreshadowing of events to come and some of the passages required a pen in hand, just so haunting.
Rating - 4.5/5
"Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mothers."
"She grows up with a hidden, private flame inside her: it licks at her, warms her, warns her. You need to get away, the flame tells her, you must."
"Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as 'slipping away' or 'peaceful' has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle, the body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight."