Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague

Rating: 5 out of 5.
hamnet book cover

Maggie O’Farrell – March 31, 2020

What does the death of a child do to a marriage? To a family? Those questions are timeless, and difficult to face even in fiction – but viewed at a remove of 450 years, and without modern-day medical terminology, the topic might be considered a bit less immediate and terrifying.

A playwright in Elizabethan England – Stratford-on-Avon, actually – has a wife and three children. One of those children (or is it two?) has contracted bubonic plague.

Very little is known of the lives of Agnes / Anne Hathaway or William Shakespeare, but devoted readers of fiction will set that aside as they step into this river of storytelling. Hamnet’s central event take place just a few hours after the book’s opening line, as measured in the lives of its characters. Readers must wait seventeen chapters to get there, as Maggie O’Farrell explores the fictionalized childhood and young adulthood of Agnes Will from multiple perspectives.

There’s still more story after those seventeen chapters, and the author masterfully manages time and form as she holds her readers firm in the present – the unending present – of grief.

Whether or not you’ve ever wondered about daily life in medieval England or about Shakespeare’s world, this story, beautifully narrated by Ell Potter, will pull you right up to its inevitable conclusion – and then you’ll stay for what happens afterwards.

This book was published in March 2020. What author or publisher could have predicted that that our world would have been on lockdown due to a pandemic less than two weeks before a “novel of the plague” hit the bookstore shelves? No one, obviously; publication dates are planned months in advance. Regardless, this is an interesting coincidence.