There used to be a story in these parts about a girl who lived at the edge of a forest…
At the edge of a forest, a girl.
There is a promise from teller to listener concealed in that opening, like a note tucked into a pocket, a hint that something is about to happen.
Oh my poor aching heart.
This novel! It is so good that it is almost impossible to consider how to review it.
Perhaps with my only slight quibble: it is misnamed. This is not Hamnet’s book – although he does take an obvious and inevitable role in it, his fate being a matter of historical record. This narrative belongs to his mother, Agnes. She is its beating heart and soul, its imaginative touchstone, its emotional core, and the novel’s opening chapter in which she is absent is its weakest moment. Agnes – a fictionalised Anne Hathaway, wife to William Shakespeare and mother to Hamnet and Judith – is a wonderful creation!
Agnes is fey and fierce and echoes so many other Shakespearean women: we first see her – Shakespeare first sees her – coming out of the woods that border Hewlands Farm where Shakespeare is (begrudgingly) engaged as a tutor to her brothers. She is carrying a falcon on her arm and Shakespeare mistakes her for a boy before “he registers the long plait, hanging over the shoulder, reaching past the waist, the jerkin laced tight around a form that curves suspiciously inwards”. And I am reminded of the Athenian forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Forest of Arden in As You Like It; the gender-swapping roles of Rosalind, Viola and Portia; of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing whose “spirits are as coy and wild / As haggards of the rock”. We learn that she is the daughter of a woman whom gossip declared “might have been a wood-dweller who got lost, who became separated from those of her kind, or she might have been something other” and that Agnes can cause boils and illnesses, who can “sour the milk just by touching it with her fingers”, who can predict the future… and the spirits of Puck and Titania and the witches of Macbeth cluster about her. And that image of a girl on the edge of a forest is so evocative and invest Agnes with something of both Little Red Riding Hood and, perhaps, the wolf.
Oh that one image introducing her in Chapter Two! It is so carefully gorgeously crafted and nuanced!
No, there is no need to be familiar with Shakespeare as we read the novel, but being familiar with his life and his works – perhaps being a Shakespeare nerd – it deepened and enriched the reading hugely.
Right, enough gushing, let’s continue because there is more – so much more to this novel.
It is just exquisite and wonderful and beautiful and tender. But oh so painful to read as a parent. O’Farrell fictionalises the tragic death of Hamnet Shakespeare in August 1596 – and I imagine that almost all readers likely to pick up a book named for Shakespeare’s son will be aware of the only possible outcome – and alternates that story with the utterly gorgeous and vibrant fictional account of the meeting and marriage of Agnes and William Shakespeare. Alongside these, we are treated to utterly convincing vignettes of life in sixteenth century Stratford where (save for occasional forays including one particularly notable one) we remain. It is a domestic tale, a woman’s tale, a fairy tale, a magical tale – one in which William Shakespeare is distanced if not removed utterly: he is in London as the plague hits his family in Stratford, and even in his wooing of Agnes he is never named once, referenced as the tutor, the bridegroom, the playwright, the father. Some people found that gimicky; for me it was wonderful. There are few if any other writers more aware of the roles we play, roles that we can don and doff like a costume, than Shakespeare and the moment when his two roles as playwright and as father collide when he receives the news that his child is near death is agonising as it rips him open.
The outcome of the novel is never in question, but O’Farrell creates such pathos and heart-stopping tragedy from the familiar story!
Hamnet covers the days leading up to Hamnet’s death but it is not him who is ill when it opens: with heartbreaking immediacy in O’Farrell’s present tense, we see Hamnet, panic stricken and desperate, scouring his grandfather’s home and workshop, and the street of Stratford to find help because his sister – his frail and fragile twin, Judith – lies ill and sweating and unconscious in bed plagued by buboes. Buboes which indicate that this is the dreaded plague.
O’Farrell is exquisite in her descriptions of bodies in this novel and this is mirrored both int he past and the present narratives: the sensuous nature of William and Agnes love making in the applestore at Hewlands is gorgeous, although a little marred by one surprisingly clumsy phrasing
It was his hands that undid the bows at her neckline, that pulled down her shift, that brought out her breasts into the light – and how startled and how white they had looked, in the air like that, in daytime, in front of another; their pink-brown eyes stared back in shock.
But the depictions of the births of both Susanna and the twins Judith and Hamnet, and above all the descriptions of the ill body of Judith, the dead body of Hamnet, are heart-rendingly sensuous. This is a writer who does not understands but who feels and conveys that bonedeep maternal love of the very flesh of the children, flesh the she had carried inside her own flesh, so achingly and painfully… yes, reader, I wept.
As I think back on the novel to write this, I also recognise that there was an awful lot of doubling in the structure of it. There are the twins obviously – and that is such a Shakespearean motif in its own right from The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night – and explored so wonderfully and painfully by O’Farrell. Just consider
In unison, they raised the apple slices to their lips, Hamnet with his right, Judith with her left. They put them down, as if with some silent signal between them, at the same moment, then looked at each other, then picked them up again, Judith with her left hand, Hamnet with his right. It’s like a mirror, he had said. Or that they are one person split down the middle. Their two heads uncovered, shining like spun gold.
But we also have the dual narrative which shifts between past and present. We have a doubled home where, once married, Shakespeare and Agnes live in a hastily constructed addition to his father’s house, separated by a thin wall, and
“In their apartment … she can feel him switch from one character to another; she can sense that other, big-house, self melt off him, like wax sliding from a lit candle, revealing the man within.”
We have Shakespeare’s dual roles as father and husband in one home, and as son on the other. And of course, famously, there is the doubling of Hamnet in the play Hamlet – a connection which as an erstwhile scholar of Shakespeare I have never really felt, but which as a reader of this novel and as a father I accept without question.
It is just outstanding! It is exuberant – the chapter about the flea is wonderful! – and sensual and visceral and just exquisite.
And for me, a novel which eclipses Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy.
Plot / Pace:
Publisher: Tinder Press, Headline Publishing Group, Hachette
Date: 31st March 2020