Let’s begin with a few incidental (or possibly not incidental) asides: (i) this is the first Maggie O’Farrell novel I’ve read and it’s so good (so, so good) I want Maggie O’Farrell fans to leave recommendations in the comments below – where do I go next? I put that first because I’m selfish and I want to have my journey charted out by someone wiser than me; (ii) there seems to have been a fair few Shakespeare-inspired works of art this last few years (hello Upstart Crow, hello All is True) – Hamnet is closer to the latter than the former; (iii) did you read George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo? Did you like it? If you did, that is quite literally all you need to know – you’ll like this a lot too; (iv) if this wasn’t the year of Coronavirus and the year of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (which we won’t review because we’re not important enough to warrant a review copy), Hamnet is within shouting distance of being book of the year. (“Really?” you’re saying. “A literary novel about Shakespeare? Book of the year? Seriously? My o my,” you’re saying, “this boy is a sucker for literary novels.” To you I say: good writing is good writing, and this, my friends, is good writing.)
Hamnet, as you may or may not know, was Shakespeare’s son who passed away some handful of years before he wrote Hamlet – Hamlet and Hamnet essentially being the same name. Now, that Lincoln in the Bardo comparison. Like Lincoln in the Bardo, this novel tells the story of a famous man and his soon to be dead son. Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Hamnet has writing so transcendent that you will lift your tear stained eyes to Heaven and howl for sorrow’s own sake. Like Lincoln in the Bardo, you will emerge thanking your lucky stars for the life you have, life affirmed, happier and more complete for having read O’Farrell’s book. Like Lincoln in the Bardo (and forgive me, stay with me, the hyperbole will ease up in a minute), you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stand there slack jawed in awe etc.
So: story. What we have here is the story of Shakespeare’s marriage (although he remains unnamed throughout the book) to Agnes, the local witchy almost spinster, counterpointed by the story of an illness that has gripped Hamnet’s sister (the return of the plague). When we meet Agnes for the first time, you might be reminded of Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley:
“She sees everything. The rosehips on the hedgerow that are turning brown at their tips; unpicked blackberries, too high to reach; the swoop and dip of a thrush from the branches of an oak by the side of the track; the white stream of breath from the mouth of her stepmother as she carries the youngest boy on her back, the strands of strangely colourless hair escaping from her kerchief, the wide swing of her hips.”
Later, we hear from Agnes about her children:
“Why would she ever want to behold anything else, when she could be taking in the sight of Susanna’s ears, like the pale folds of roses, the winglike sweep of her tiny eyebrows, the dark hair, which clings to her crown as if painted there with a brush? There is nothing more exquisite to her than her child: the world could not possibly contain a more perfect being, anywhere, ever.”
And so, as you’d probably expect given that this is the story of a marriage, there is a love story here (and oh how we are a sucker for a good love story) – a love story involving one of the most famous men who ever lived. But the delight of the book is in the way that O’Farrell introduces us to Shakespeare’s bride, a woman every bit as extraordinary and inspiring as he is:
“‘Do you know,’ he says, addressing the covering above him, ‘that this is the foremost reason I love you?’ ‘That I cannot sleep in the air?’ ‘No. That you see the world as no one else does.'”
She is “too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange”; he is “something of which she had never known the like”:
“Something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar school boy from town. It was far reaching: this much she knew. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents. There wasn’t enough time for her to get a sense of it all – it was too big, too complex. It eluded her, mostly. She knew that there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them. A sense, too, that something was tethering him, holding him back; there was a tie somewhere, a bond, that needed to be loosened or broken, before he could fully inhabit this landscape, before he could take command.”
O’Farrell is tremendously playful. She has fun with her material but she never forgets the story she is telling, the hard tragedy at the centre of the book and so you get lines like the following (in which Shakespeare’s mother is startled by Hamnet standing in the kitchen door) that land like sucker punches:
“‘Oh,’ she says. ‘You frightened me! Whatever are you doing, boy? You look like a ghost, standing there like that.'”
One of the most remarkable things about Hamnet is the way in which O’Farrell manages, somehow, to engineer surprises, twists and turns, all of which can only be the product of invention. By the time you chance upon Hamnet’s plan to save his sister, your heart is in your throat. I guarantee it. More than this, though – and perhaps as I grow older, this becomes a more important aspect of the books I cherish – it feels like there is truth here. Wisdom. That’s right. Truth and wisdom in a novel about Shakespeare. Whoda thunk it? Here are two excerpts I read only to find myself nodding with weary resignation at their indefatigable rightness:
“How easy it is, Agnes thinks, as she lifts the plates, to miss the pain and anguish of one person, if that person keeps quiet, if he keeps it all in, like a bottle stoppered too tightly, the pressure inside building and building until – what? Agnes doesn’t know.”
“He longs for his bed, for the enclosed space of his room, for that moment when his mind will fall silent, when his body will realise it is over and that sleep must come.”
There is an acute pain here that burns so brightly it’s like the sun, you can’t quite look at it face on. The death of a child. There is nothing worse. Even as someone who has – thankfully – never had to experience that pain, as the father of three it remains the greatest imaginable horror. O’Farrell stares into the abyss for us, reports upon what she sees and somehow manages to find the glowing embers of hope by raking in the coals. Hamnet’s death is not even the climax of the book – there is (can it be believed?) a greater climax, as Agnes angrily stands in the Globe theatre watching the first performance of a play her husband has written without asking her permission. The last few pages of the book scald and then redeem.
To conclude then, with another line from the book that mirrors our experience of reading Hamnet. This is Shakespeare’s process:
“is possible for him to slip away from himself and find a peace so absorbing, so soothing, so private, so joyous that nothing else will do.”
That is the novel’s only drawback: when you’ve read Hamnet, you might find that subsequent books fall short for a bit. It should be a price you’re willing to pay.
Any Cop?: The kind of novel that makes us wish we had more than two hands so we could give it at least four thumbs up. A joyous, sombre, heartfelt delight. Highly recommended.