Another month down, another book review to post!
“I am dead:
… draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.”Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii
This time we are travelling back in time to 1596 – a time when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne, a series of treaties had stopped the religious warfare in Europe and women skirts became wider. It was also the time when the great plague was arriving in Spain…
“They cannot both live… There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was.”
Hamnet at this point in time, is a young boy, a twin. His twin sister is poorly, bed bound by a sudden fever. Hamnet needs to find help and fast but there’s just one problem…
“They are what most people dread, what everyone hopes they’ll never find…”
Where is everybody? Why is nobody at home?
Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, tending to her garden full of medicinal herbs. It is important to point out that it is therefore implied that Agnes is a Wiccan.
Insert fun historical fact here – Wiccans were those performing rituals practicing a form of modern paganism and like healers and shaman they would treat any health issues with the magical properties of herbs.
But anyway, I digress…
Their father is away in London, trying to create a better future for them – a future where they can all be together and live in London with ample funds and no worry about money, jobs or education. Their children will grow up happy and healthy.
“This child, in Agnes’s belly, will change everything for him, will free him from the life he hates…He and Agnes will take flight: to another house, another town, another life.”
Neither parent realises the heartbreak that is to come in the not so distant future…losing a child is a grief no parent should ever have to endure.
“The words exist if you know how to listen.”
Hamnet is about a boy, the son of a famous playwright (any guesses?), a son almost forgotten in history but kept alive by a famous play.
“He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.”
So any guesses who this mysterious playwright and famous play might be?
If you guessed Shakespeare for the playwright then you’d be correct and you’d be scoring two for two if you guessed Hamlet for the play.
This book is almost more non-fiction than fiction. It is based on the facts that we know with some fiction added in where history has failed us with recording the information. Here are some examples – although we all know that Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife, in her fathers will, she is named Agnes. Meanwhile, Joan Hathaway was either her mother or step-mother – unfortunately there is no hard historical evidence to credit/discredit the theories either way. Hamnet’s sole surviving aunt was also called Joan but Maggie O’Farrell made the, what I think correct decision, to change this to Eliza for the ease of the reader. The Shakespeare’s Trust has provided a lot of information for this book such as the two theories that Hamnet, Susanna and Judith lived with their grandparents house vs living in a small adjoining property but as in the book, these two households would have been closely linked together and with no real evidence to support either theory, the children were living in a small adjoining property. Finally, we come to Hamnets cause of death. In the book his death is caused by The Black Death but in reality, his cause of death was never recorded, only his burial. Shakespeare never references it in either his plays nor his poetry and so some guess work had to be done. It’s odd that Shakespeare doesn’t reference it – he made and dedicated a play to him after all. Maybe because he wasn’t there at the death? Or maybe because he’s a father who doesn’t want to relive his child’s death?
This book starts slowly it has to be said. It starts with Hamnet, worried about the health of his sister looking for some help, some support, some medicine. Even though he is only a child, he is the lone man of the house (his dad is in London) and so he feels he is responsible for his sisters, for his family. A lot of this acts not only as a basis of the story but has a lot of very cleverly written foreshadowing.
After about 100 pages, we then read the book with Agnes as the main character. Looking at the turmoil from needing to marry, to marrying someone whose family disapproves of her, to giving birth to their children alone, to her husband moving to london and dealing with the worry of not only him being away from home, but the prospect of him seeking admirations of other ladies. This is where the book picks up in interest, you become more invested in the family.
“Would he recognise her now, if he were to pass her in the street, this boy who will forever remain a boy.”
However, my favourite part of the book was the last chapter. It is beautifully written and honestly you could feel the emotions rip through you. The anger, the frustration, the exhaustion, the relief, the surprise – but also feeling the heartbreak of Agnes losing her son all over again.
“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”
And we see Shakespeare in a new light, as an actor but also as a father – trying to exchange his sons suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up so that his child may live (in the play at least).
One last note, you may have noticed some blue flowers in the background of the photo for this post. These beautiful flowers are called Ceanothus and the meaning of these beautiful flowers include pain and protection. Meanings which I think suit this novel very well.
Until next time,