Book Review by Frank O’Shea
MAGGIE O’FARRELL. Hamnet. Tinder Press 2020 372 pp.
ISBN: 978 1 4722 2380 7
Stop Press: Just before going to press, we learned that Hamnet had been awarded the £30k Women’s Prize for Fiction, defeating Booker winning Girl Woman Other and Hilary Mantel’s latest book The Mirror and the Light.
What is it about Derry that it produces such outstandingly creative people? Elsewhere in this edition of Tinteán you will read tributes to John Hume. Add contemporaries like Seamus Heaney and Phil Coulter and you can safely join Maggie O’Farrell to that elite company. Writer of at least eight books, she won the Costa Award for The Hand That First Held Mine and was longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award for The Vanishing Act of Esmee Lennox. This, her latest novel, is shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
It takes courage to write a book which has as one of its main characters the greatest writer in the English language. Even the ruse of never actually naming him in the book cannot take from the reader’s attempt to recall his plays studied at school. In this book he is ‘the husband’ or ‘the Latin teacher’ or ‘the writer’. His wife’s name is Anne Hathaway, but she is called Agnes here, a name under which she appears in some official documents of that time.
Agnes is the central character in the story. She is presented as a healer, a woman close to nature and possessing unusual, semi-mystical abilities. She knows, for example that she will have two children, so when her second pregnancy results in twins, she is as surprised as the midwives who deliver a boy and a girl, the latter delicate and barely surviving the birthing process. They are named Hamnet and Judith and they join their older sister Susannah as the completed family. The latter, the first born, was already growing when her father aged 18 married Agnes aged 26.
In those times, in that place – it is never referred to as Stratford – the names Hamnet and Hamlet are interchangeable, each written or spoken to indicate the same person. The father of the twins is starting to become known as a member of a troop of players for whom he writes and with whom he performs in London and into Kent and surrounding areas. He is away when 11-year old Judith comes down with a sudden fever, with only her brother Hamnet to try to find an adult to care for her. He does manage to return to be with Agnes as she tends her dying child – not Judith, however, but Hamnet who probably caught the plague from his sister.
The book is a story about love: the love of a mother for her children, of a father for his wife and his children, of children for each other. Agnes has reasonable questions about her husband’s love for her and for his family and though he returns from London on a regular basis and buys them a grand house, the ghost of Hamnet affects all their relationships.
Even if Hamlet was not on your Leaving Cert syllabus or part of your playgoing education, the explanation for the origin of the story, as presented by O’Farrell, is ingenious and completely believable. The final section of the book is writing of extraordinary power as the author takes the emotions she has evoked in the first part to a conclusion that is satisfying and credible.
Writing historical fiction can be risky; doing it against the background of a man subject to as much analysis and study as anyone in history adds a further element of hazard. There are probably hidden references to his work in the text. It will be a delight to those who know that writer and his times, but stands just as competently as an analysis of love and loss.
Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.