Friday 20 October 2023

Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell

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A boy runs to find his family, nowhere to be found. A young man falls in love with a local woman. These two stories run in parallel, years apart. Hamnet’s father meets Agnes while working as a Latin tutor. She is older and considered strange by the locals. A pregnancy forces her family’s hand and soon they find themselves married. Later, the father works in London as his daughter lies dying of the plague. Hamnet’s mother has the gift to see what others don’t, and had always believed there would be two children with her at her deathbed. Judith’s turn in health suggests her three living children might soon become two. This storyline moves forward at a slower pace until the young versions of his mother and father almost catch them up. 

Agnes, more commonly known as Anne today, struggles to fit in to town living. She has grown up with nature and feels that connection deeply, taking herself into the woods to give birth to her first daughter alone. She is strong-willed and intelligent, and we see the passion between her and her husband, something history has often forgotten. Her husband has a difficult relationship with his father but he is driven to succeed. They plot for him to move to London, a decision that Agnes comes to regret. After Hamnet’s death his letters home become increasingly infrequent and lack any real detail. What feels like abandonment could instead be a struggle to deal with grief. O’Farrell takes the scant facts we have about these lives and expands them, makes them relatable and rounded, creates a relationship with depth and pain, and real love.

The relationship between Judith and Hamnet is sweet. We see them growing up, playing tricks on the rest of the family, pretending to be the other. Focussing on the possibility of Judith’s demise is an interesting curveball, and the shift to Hamnet is all the more painful for its having snuck up on the family. There is a brief interlude explaining how the plague reaches them and it is quite remarkable. After Hamnet’s death we don’t see much of Judith’s experience, but what we do is heartbreaking. Her desire to be reunited with Hamnet, her feeling that she has lost part of herself, is all the more poignant for the way in which their positions switched.

When news of her husband’s latest play reaches Agnes she is distraught that he has taken their son’s name to use in such a way, that he wouldn’t even have mentioned it to her before advertising. This section considers the way in which we remember those who are no longer with us. This play which at first seems to have no part of her son in it proves to be a moving memorial, and a way for both parents to come back together, an unspoken understanding between them.

O’Farrell's prose is beautiful. She builds a story about one of the most famous writers ever to have lived but makes it feel like it could be any family. The fraught relationships with elders in the family, the desire to find their own way in life, and the judgment and care of the local community, all this normalises a remarkable family. Renown does not protect against misfortune and heartbreak. This is a very human story.

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