cover image Hamnet


Maggie O’Farrell. Knopf, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-525-65760-6

O’Farrell (This Must Be the Place) concocts an outstanding masterpiece of Shakespearean apocrypha in this tale of an unnamed bard’s family living in Stratford-upon-Avon while his star is rising in London. In 1596, 11-year-old Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, comes down with a sudden, severe illness. Hamnet searches urgently for help, and is treated cruelly by his drunken grandfather, John, a glove maker. Hamnet’s mother, Agnes, known and feared for dispensing mysterious homeopathic remedies, is at Hewlands, her family’s farmhouse. When she returns home, Judith shows undeniable signs of the bubonic plague, and the diagnosis is confirmed by a doctor. O’Farrell then tells of Agnes and her husband’s passionate courtship, and of Agnes’s stepmother banishing her from Hewlands after she becomes pregnant. The couple moves into a small, drafty addition to his parent’s house, where Agnes’s husband grows restless and melancholic in his overbearing, volatile father’s presence, and she schemes to send him to London to expand John’s business. Throughout, Agnes possesses keen premonitions and is deeply troubled when she gives birth to twins after their firstborn daughter, which contradicts a vision she’d had that the couple’s two children will stand by her deathbed. More disturbing, and unbelievable to her, is Hamnet and Judith’s sudden trading places on the sick bed. O’Farrell brilliantly explores the married couple’s relationship, capturing Agnes’s intuition that her husband is destined for great things in London, along with her frustration that his world is unknown to her. The book is filled with astonishing, timely passages, such as the plague’s journey to Stratford via a monkey’s flea from Alexandria. This is historical fiction at its best. (July)