If you are looking for a good book to read now that the kids are back in school and the garden is producing in a more manageable fashion, let me suggest to you one of my favorites of the summer, if not the year.
“Hamnet,” by Maggie O’Farrell, is work of fiction, but linked to the most famous writer of all, William Shakespeare, although his name is never mentioned. He is referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, and that is all.
But we know.
This is a sweeping book of small domestic intimacies. We are at home with Shakespeare as a charming but distracted young man as he navigates the mine fields of a difficult and often cruel father. He meets Anne—Agnes, as she is referred to throughout the book, and it may in fact have been her name—a woman older and wise in the ways of nature, herbs, and falconry, and he is quite quickly a goner.
But first, we meet their son, eleven-year old Hamnet, running down a flight of stairs.
He is frantic, looking for his mother, his grandmother, anyone who can help him, for his twin sister, Judith, is sick. O’Farrell takes us through the streets and alleys of Stratford as we follow his running feet, and before we have turned the third page, we care about this child, his desperately ill sister, and before the chapter is done, we care about the family that enfolds them.
We care because this is a fine novel of small things, the vagaries of marriage, the difficulty of in-laws, the joy and desperate love for children. And it is a novel of the plague.
It surprises us, even as we sense a creeping fear that things will not be well for the children in this family. We have read the subtile of the book on the jacket cover: “A novel of the plague.”
But it surprises us all the same.
O’Farrell moves around in time in a way that deepens and enriches both the story and the characters. We are in Stratford in the late sixteenth century with Hamnet and his sister and family, and we are also given a supposing of Shakespeare and Agnes’ early meeting fifteen years earlier. Again, much of this is imagining, but the reader senses much research went in to the writing of this book, and the author provides such a steady hand we willingly go along.
All of this book is a delight to read, from the feel of the beautiful cover to the gorgeous use of language to the dramatic setting.
And then there is the flea.
That flea takes us from a glassblower in Murano to the sickbed of a child in England, and it may be worth getting this book for that journey alone. The circuitous route, the happenstance of it all was fascinating and heartbreaking and something to wonder over.
The story, of course, will have a sad end, and we know that going in. But such tender writing, with such depth, gives us to know the writer cares about the reader as much as she has fallen in love with the characters. She writes as if she is wise and loving grandmother holding our hands while the heartbreaking truth of things unspool before us.
Which makes this such a moving and satisfying read.
It is a skillfully crafted book. It is fiction, a broad imagining of events six hundred years ago, events in a family with what is now surely the most famous name in literary history. As with all good fiction, though, it feels true and evokes in the reader emotions and memories and curiosities to ponder long after the last leaf of the book is turned.