The Story of Our Time

The past year has been defined by an invisible enemy. From a yet-to-be identified source, a virus spread like a wildfire to all parts of the globe. With nearly 130 million cases and nearly three million casualties as of date, COVID19 has made everyone hit the brakes in their fast-paced lives. The world was put to a halt. Major sporting events and concerts were rescheduled or cancelled. A deathly silence has settled in parks, malls, and tourist destinations that were once teeming with activities. Streets once crowded with cars and pedestrians once brimming with individuals making their way to their destination are virtually empty. Severe measures were taken to curb the exponential rise of cases. Over a year into this public health crisis, the silver lining came in the form of vaccines. There is a renewed hope as countries raise to vaccinate majority of their citizens.

During the middle ages, another major plague redefined the flow of time and the lives of the Europeans. The bubonic plague, which we refer in the contemporary as the Black Death, or the Plague/Pestilence, is known to be the most fatal pandemic recorded in human story. From as early as 1346 to as late as the mid-19th century, it has claimed millions of lives. In her latest novel, Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell tackled how the bubonic plague has touched and altered the lives of the family of one of the, if not the, most renowned English playwrights and poets – William Shakespeare.

Hamnet Shakespeare was one half of fraternal twins, with his sister Judith Shakespeare, born on February 2, 1585 to Anne Hathaway and Shakespeare. He was the couple’s only son. At the young age of eleven, he, unfortunately, passed away and was buried on August 11, 1596. Whilst little is known of his life, most Shakespearean scholars have posited that the cause of the young Shakespeare lad’s death was the bubonic plague which had one of its many resurgence during this particular period. In O’Farrell retelling, the virus that has struck Hamnet originated from a flea that transmitted the virus to various carriers before eventually making its way to a stray cat. As fate would have it, the virus struck Judith who, in a matter of hours, experienced fever and delirium – all the symptoms of the dreaded disease.

“What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any time, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”

~ Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet

Announced the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet, does not, however, reduce itself into a mere modern retelling of the young Shakespeare’s life which was cut short by the dreaded virus. The title as well was a little misleading for the centrifugal force that kept the entire narrative together was Agnes. The novel opened with Hamnet but it was palpable that Agnes propelled the story; she was the front and center of the story. O’Farrell vividly painted the portrait of a character whose entire claim to fortune was her husband. Relying on sketchy details, O’Farrell managed to craft a vivid backstory for Agnes – or Anne. In crafting a backstory for Agnes and making her drive the narrative, O’Farrell made her step out of the shadows of her famous husband. She was no longer Shakespeare’s wife.

The story alternated between the tragic year in their lives and Agnes’ youth. A wild and free-spirited young lady, she roamed her family’s land with a spring on her steps and a falcon her hand. She was an eccentric but gifted young woman. She was a gifted healer whose reputation preceded her but her life was inevitably altered when she met a young penniless Latin tutor who was indentured to settle a debt incurred by his father. They fell in love and together, the young couple moved to Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon to live with the young Latin tutor’s family. In her new environment, Agnes flourished into a passionate and protective mother.

O’Farrell explored familiar and heartwarming themes revolving around motherhood. She vividly portrayed the transformation young women experience as they are initiated into the world of motherhood – from the pains of childbirth to the grief of loss. The whole spectrum of emotions was captured by Agnes’ story, the joys, the worries, the anxieties, and the fears attached to motherhood. Agnes was constantly locked in a battle with herself, perpetually plagued by the question of whether she was doing enough for her young children: “She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.

Grief and sorrow are the prevailing emotions in the narrative. The novel captured how people touched by death navigates the labyrinth of the pain of a loss of a loved one. One of the most powerful yet one of the most painful scenes in the story captured Agnes, in the stead of her husband, washing and laying out the body of Hamnet. The burial rites cannot wait for the arrival of his father because the fear that the plague will lingered. This image is prevalent and familiar in the contemporary as those who succumbed to COVID19 must be buried or incinerated quickly. The novel also portrayed the impact of this loss on what is already an unstable marriage which was marked by the husband’s long absences.

“I find that I am constantly wondering where he is. Where he has gone. It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind. Whatever I am doing, wherever I am, I am thinking: Where is he, where is he? He can’t have just vanished. He must be somewhere. All I have to do is find him. I look for him everywhere, in every street, in every crowd, in every audience. That’s what I am doing, when I look out at them all: I try to find him, or a version of him.”

~ Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet

One of the strongest, and also one of the most important, facets of the novel, was its reliance on the depictions of domestic life. O’Farrell juxtaposed the story of Agnes and her children on a vivid backdrop that was rich in details. In magnifying and capturing the seemingly quotidian, O’Farrell was able to capture the heart of an ordinary family. The novel draws the readers in with the minutiae of domestic life in the 16th century, with focus on the experiences of women and children, from their struggles and to the things from which they derive pleasure from. In this time when the pandemic is still prevalent, the novel’s message resonates even further. This ordinary family could be any family. The unseen enemy can alter anyone’s life.

Agnes loomed large in the narrative. She was a complex character who was molded by the environment surrounding her family’s land. She roamed the land freely, more comfortable in the company of nature than in the company of human beings. She has a knack for plants which made her an excellent healer. She was seen to have descended from myth, the product of a folklore that her neighbors are wary of. Her story was also tinged with elements of fairy tale. In her stepmother’s house, she was treated like Cinderella. She starved for love but it was these early struggles that slowly shaped her. Over time, she developed into a strong character whose voice resonated all through out the story.

Despite the lack of materials on Hamnet, he was vividly reimagined by O’Farrell in the novel. He was a smart boy but was easily distracted. The readers meet him as he sought out help for his twin sister who suddenly fell ill. As panic turns into desperation, he went to and fro their house only to find that everyone was nowhere to be found. His ultimate sacrifice was a demonstration of the deep love between a brother and sister, one of the many manifestations of love in the story: “He can feel Death in the room, hovering in the shadows, over there beside the door, head averted, but watching all the same, always watching. It is waiting, biding its time. It will slide forward on skinless feet, with breath of damp ashes, to take her, to clasp her in its cold embrace, and he, Hamnet, will not be able to wrest her free.”

The most popular character in this story was never named. To a young Agnes, he was the “Latin tutor”. To the ordinary spectators, he was either the husband of Agnes, or the son of John and Mary, or the father of Susanna, Judith and Hamnet. He was never directly mentioned and was allowed very little direct speech. There was very little reference on how it impacted him, which weighed down a little on the narrative. To some degree, his lack of voice left something to be desired for. Non-readers of his works would miss out on the connection between this devastating event to what many pundits refer to as his best work: Hamlet.

“She grows up, too, with the memory of what it meant to be properly loved, for what you are, not what you ought to be. There is just enough of this recollection alive, she hopes, to enable her to recognise it if she meets it again. And if she does, she won’t hesitate. She will seize it with both hands, as a means of escape, a means of survival. She won’t listen to the protestations of others, their objections, their reasoning. This will be her chance, her way through the narrow hole at the heart of the stone, and nothing will stand in her way.”

~ Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet

The novel’s most compelling facet was the quality of O’Farrell’s prose. Her lyrical prose held all of the elements of the novel together. It was this lyrical prose that made the emotions brewing on the surface to simmer, complimenting the poignancy of Agnes’ story and the grief that it was wrapped in. O’Farrell also ingeniously played with metaphors and adjectives. Vivid and descriptive passages are interwoven in the narrative, adding up to an atmospheric literary piece: ‘’Summer is an assault. The long evenings, the warm air wafting through the windows, the slow progress of the river through the windows, the slow progress of the river through the town, the shouts of children playing late in the street, the horses flicking floes from their flanks, the hedgerows heavy with flowers and berries.’’

Hamnet was a lacerating account of a mother’s love. Poignant and an atmospheric, it is a tale about love, grief, family, motherhood and sorrow. In casting Agnes out of the shadows of her popular husband, O’Farrell fashioned one of the most fascinating mothers in the realms of literature. Her lyrical and descriptive storytelling made up for an evocative story that is also seminal in the current state of affairs. It drew weight on the power of love in its different forms – from a young woman’s love for a naïve young man, a brother’s love for his sister, to a mother’s unconditional love for her children. Although set in the twilight of the 16th century, Hamnet is the story of our time, with its subtle and profound messages resonating in the present.

Ratings

77%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

Prior to 2020, I have never heard of Maggie O’Farrell nor have I encountered any of her works. It was through a fellow book blogger that I came across Hamnet. She gave a glowing account of the novel that I eagerly added it to my own (growing) to-be-read list. After it has been awarded the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, my interest in the book doubled. Luckily, I managed to purchase a copy of the book later in the year. I read it ahead of the books that have been gathering dust in my bookshelves. What really stood out for me is the quality of O’Farrell’s prose, reminiscent of many Irish writers whose works I have read previously. The lyrical prose made emotions flow. The various forms of love – between mother and children, between a brother and a sister – was the mantle of the story and was vividly captured by O’Farrell in this lush narrative. It is also a projection of our current dilemma, as the pandemic ravages every corner of the globe.

Book Specs

Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 305
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.

A young Latin tutor – penniless and bullied by a violent father – falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is just taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.

A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down – a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.

About the Author

Maggie O’Farrell was born on May 27, 1972 in Coleraine, Northern Ireland.

O’Farrell grew up in Wales in Scotland. She attended  North Berwick High School, and Brynteg Comprehensive School. At New Hall, Cambridge (now Murray Edwards College), she read English Literature. Post-university, she worked as a journalist at Hong Kong. She also took on odd jobs such as a waitress, chambermaid, bike messenger, teacher, and arts administrator. She was also the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday.

In 2000, she made her literary debut with the publication of her first novel, After You’d Gone. It was a critical success and won the Betty Trask Award. She followed it up with My Lover’s Lover (2002) and The Distance Between Us (2004). The Distance Between Us was awarded the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award. Her 2010 novel,  The Hand That First Held Mine was also a critical success and was awarded the 2010 Costa Book Awards for Novels. Instructions for a Heatwave (2013) and This Must Be the Place (2016) were also shortlisted for the Costa Award. Her latest novel, Hamnet (2020) won O’Farrell the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Apart from writing, O’Farrell has also taught creative writing at the University of Warwick in Coventry and Goldsmith’s College in London.

O’Farrell is married to fellow novelist William Sutcliffe. They are currently residing in Edinburgh, with their three children.