Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book, “Hamnet”, is quite different and distinct from all her previous creations. Her other novels have revolved around modern families in crisis. This new novel seems to tell the story of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet. He died as a child and supposedly provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s famous play “Hamlet”.
However the novel really tells the story of the enigmatic Agnes, Will’s wife and Hamnet’s mother. She is an interesting and unorthodox country woman with “elfic” tendencies. She knows the medicinal and healing properties of the local flowers, plants and roots. She communes with nature like an alternative priestess even after falling in love with Will. She moves to live with his dysfunctional family.
The drama of the novel however is found in the intimate relationship of Hamnet with his identical twin sister Judith. It is in the description of this special dynamic that O’Farrell displays her literary mastery of the intricacies of close family encounters. The manner by which Hamnet takes on Judith’s illness is surely poetic license rather than historical fact. The intense grief of each family member at Hamnet’s passing almost causes the family to disintegrate. It is only when Agnes realizes that, in creating the play Hamlet, her husband is transforming his grief into memory. Thus she can be reconciled with him.
The language and imagery of this novel is poetical and lyrical. It reads beautifully. The other characters emerge as realistic, the irascible and unpleasant father, John, the jealous and vindictive step-mother Joan, the rustic and reliable brother Bartholomew and the practical older sister Susanna. However I found this novel somehow stilted and laboured unlike all O’Farrell’s other books. I wondered why.
In most of her modern stories, an unusual sickness or medical condition casts a shadow or poses a challenge to her range of feisty, credible characters. This detail furnishes a link with Hamnet. In “After you’d gone”, one person is left in a coma. in “Instructions for a heat-wave”, one daughter has reading disorder. In “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”, Esme spends her adult life in an asylum. In “This Must be the Place”, the son has a serious skin ailment while his father is an alcoholic. In O’Farrell’s autobiographical account of close encounters with death, “I am, I am, I am”, the most striking event occurs in Italy when O’Farrell and her husband race to find a local hospital to treat their daughter who is having a severe allergic reaction.
However in these stories, the inter-play of medical science and common sense work themselves out in a credible and realistic way. Not so in Hamnet. Agnes is powerless against the plague which attacks Judith first, before leaving her to attack Hamnet. Somehow there is an inconsistency here. Agnes has been presented as wise but “unorthodox” or as living outside the normal faith traditions of the community. Their ordinary medicines never work anyway. But now her own medicines don’t work. It’s as if her “non-faith” is just as illusory as the others’ “faith”. In this sense, the novel is hopeless. It does not lead anywhere. It offers no new way of reflecting on family difficulties and tragedies. O’Farrell’s previous novels offered new insight. More than this, one could sense in her previous works that disaster was averted (just about) because the characters’ malevolence was somehow curtailed by a benevolent presence hovering at the very edge of her stories. Perhaps this presence is missing in “Hamnet”.