This book was not really on my TBR, to be honest. I had it on my radar, but just didn’t think I was going to be feeling it…really ever. But a few things happened in conjunction that basically made me feel like I was going to have to give it a try. First, and mostly the main thing, is that it won this year’s Women’s Prize. I have read and been so impressed by the last four winners (An American Marriage, Home Fire, LOVED The Power, and The Glorious Heresies – which was a pre-blog read for me, so I can only link to my thoughts on Goodreads). Anyways, that’s a pretty solid streak of reading the winners, and I feel compelled to continue it. Also, one of the last prompts that I hadn’t filled yet for the Reading Women Challenge 2020 is #5, a Stella or Women’s Prize winner. And so, it was the perfect storm.
“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.”
This is a fictional account of William Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who died when he was only 11 (actual cause of death unknown, but here O’Farrell posits that it was as a result of the plague, which seems pretty reasonable), and the way that potentially inspired the writing of Hamlet. This is so interesting because I feel like there are untold numbers of accounts of Shakespeare and his life and if he *actually* wrote all those plays (and if not, speculation as to who did) and just generally his name is one of the most well known in all of classic “literature.” And yet…after reading this, I realize how little I actually knew (know?) about him as a person. I knew he had a wife named Anne, but also apparently, she could have been named Agnes, and she was older than him, an orphan, had a pretty big dowry, was pregnant when they got married, then they had twins, they lived separately (he often in London and she staying in Stratford). And there were some other details that are probably based in historical knowledge, with varying degrees of true-to-life accuracy, like his father’s abusive nature, the family’s trade as glove-makers and Agnes’ skill with herbs as a healer. It was a really unique perspective, which I found impressive, considering how much is already written about him. Honestly, that breadth of lit related to Shakespeare and his work was part of the reason I was hesitant to read this in the first place, feeling like, for the most part, it’s all already been said/done. But, at least for me, this did feel like an original take.
I sort of jumped straight from the synopsis into my thoughts/review there – whoops. But I guess let me just keep things going. I really enjoyed the way this was a novel of family, of the private side of relationships, of the love between two people when they start a life/family and the way it strains and changes over time dealing with loss and distance and thwarted expectations and all the other things daily life throws at it; of a couple trying to survive and adapt the best they can. To this same end, I really liked that the focus was not on Shakespeare himself, nor on his work, but that he played more of a supporting character in the reality that was his family’s existence. His name was actually never said/written specifically throughout the entire novel (at least that I remember), instead centering the family’s names for him: father, husband. This point of view is, I think, one of the aspects of this retelling of the less popular side of a popular man’s story that I liked best. Tangentially related, the general historical feel was another aspect I really enjoyed. As I mentioned, some of the scene-setting details, like Agnes’ beekeeping/herb-use, the way the plague/illness was generally handled, the glove-making business (legal and otherwise) that Shakespeare’s family ran, the intergenerational dynamics, and more – I thought it was all so well-researched and presented in a way than ran smooth and deep with knowledge, but never overwhelming or extra in detail.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the titular Hamnet and the way his death was handled. Interestingly, though it’s central in many ways to the story, Hamnet himself is really not in the book very much. The story is much more focused on the way he came into the world (his parents’ meeting and marrying and early life together), with a quick “connector” section addressing the plague and the way he dies (with a sweet, lightly paranormal/magical, vibe, in order to save his more sickly twin), and then a very full follow-up that follows his whole family, especially Agnes, but also his father, older sister and twin, as they struggle with grief and coming to terms with his death in the months and years that follow. The way it affects them all, individually and, thus, in the way they communicate and interact as a unit, is developed flawlessly. This is the first O’Farrell I have read, but let me tell you – wow, can she write about death and grief. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking in its minute observations and introspections. The delicate and tragic meditation on losing a child in the final third (ish) of the book is a slow, subtle fire building in my heart and mind as a reader. With each passing page, I was brought farther and farther into the grief and by the end I found myself much more emotionally invested than I had been expecting. And truly the ending was something special, the final connection being drawn between Hamnet’s story with the play Hamlet, a really finely crafted conveyance of processing grief, honoring the departed, recognizing the wish we all have to be able to change the way things turned out. It was subtle, but as it unfolded, the emotional power in the final scene is one of those perfect curtain-closing scenes, a singular moment seared into the imagination-memory of my mind.
There was a very ephemeral, lyrical quality to the story and writing of this novel. At times, I felt a bit like a voyeur to this family’s tragedy, seeing almost too much into their private reactions and feelings, but then…that’s also the skill and beauty of O’Farrell’s writing, to elicit that reaction. And it impressed me. Perhaps it was my low(ish) feelings about reading this in the first place (though, to be honest, lower expectations should make it easier for a book to blow me away, right?), but I don’t think this is a new favorite for me, nor is it my favorite recent Women’s Prize winner. However, I absolutely respect the awe-some quality of writing itself, as well as the new way perspectives/approaches this novel took, and my final impression is a positive one.