Tuesday, November 24, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O'Farrell

I told myself no more plague books. But I’ve been hearing so much hype about Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O’Farrell that I had to read it. This book is a beautifully written historical novel based on the family of William Shakespeare. It centers on his rather unearthly wife, Agnes, and their children, the eldest, Susanna, and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. 

The early lives of William and Agnes are difficult, shaped by violence and loss. Their courtship is furtive, not welcomed by either family, and their marriage is finagled by the pair (primarily instigated by Agnes) with a pre-marital pregnancy. They are happy in their marriage but not necessarily in their lives. William is sinking into depression as he envisions the drudgery of following in his father’s footsteps as a glove maker. Agnes takes charge again, finagling a way to see him off to London, where he will make his name.

Unfortunately, while he is gone, the plague comes to Stratford, sickening first Judith and then Hamnet. The Shakespeares have to adapt to the loss of Hamnet, a loss which leads to the near disintegration of the family.

It’s a difficult book to read because the author does such an incredible job of making grief real. The focus is not on the plague’s widening circles of death and the universal fear it causes, as was the case in other novels I’ve read recently. Rather, this is an intimate look at the loss of one person and how it affects those around him. It’s something to think about as the overwhelming death tolls from our own era’s plague seem to become more about statistical losses than about individual lives gone. 

1 comment:

  1. Loved reading all your thoughts on this one. I have a feeling it will become one of my favourite books as it has so many themes that I am drawn to.