The Black Death has ravished England and Europe for centuries. Although the plague in the 16th century was not as devastating as in previous centuries, it still was a horrific disease that killed thousands. For example, in Warwickshire, England, a family understood how unforgiving death could be and how it can tear down even the strongest of familial bonds. The family of the playwright William Shakespeare must navigate the sudden loss of their beloved son while they keep their family together. “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell is the story of the death of one child and how his death affected so many people.
When it comes to this book, it was one of those titles that I had heard so many good things about it, but I waited for a while until I bought it for myself. I wanted to understand why it was such a beloved novel.
It should be noted that O’Farrell does write in the present tense, which is somewhat unusual for a historical fiction novel. Since I do not read many books written in the present tense, it took me a few pages to feel comfortable with the narrative. We witness Hamnet rushing all over town to find his family as his twin sister Edith lays sick in bed, fearing that she is ill with the plague. We then switch to a different scene where we see the mother named Agnes, who is deemed eccentric and unusual, fall in love with a penniless Latin tutor who is the son of a glover. These two storylines seem separate, but when you realize how they connect, it shows how strong the love between Agnes and her husband was and how she fiercely loved her children.
In the end, it was not Judith who died but Hamnet. His death shifts the entire tone of this book, and we see the whole family grieve in different ways. Grief is painful for everyone, but Agnes’s grief is debilitating. Often, O’Farrell would have a scene in this novel or a line to make me want to cry. Hamnet’s death and the aftermath have been one of the most emotional rollercoasters I have read all year.
This novel was spectacular in the way it was written. Although the present tense did throw me for a loop at first, the story and its emotional weight were nothing short of impressive. It may have been about the Shakespeare family during the late Tudor dynasty, but it can translate to any family dealing with a pandemic, past or present. It is a novel that transcends time that anyone who loves historical fiction will devour. If you want an elegantly written book with a poignant storyline, “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell should be on your to-be-read pile.