William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1564. He got married at age 18 to Anne Hathaway (Agnes) and they had 3 children. Their only son, Hamnet, died at age 11. These facts about Shakespeare are what Maggie O’Farrell used as the basis to create her best selling historical novel “Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague.”
Several of our regular library patrons recommended this historical fiction book to me, saying that they thought I would love it, and it is definitely one of my favorite books I read this year! The author’s writing style and unique treatment of a historical figure set it apart from other books.
The story structure is familiar enough, in that the chapters alternate between 2 timelines: early and later in the characters' lives.This technique aids in building suspense in the “plot.” What I found to be so unique about this novel is that it is really not even about William Shakespeare! Many historical novels based on a real person’s life center around that figure. O’Farrell uses Shakespeare as the jumping off point to chronicle daily life of a family in England in the 1500s. In fact, she never uses Shakespeare’s name, so you could read most of the book without even knowing it was “about” the famous playwright.
The author’s beautiful use of language swept me away to the time and location. Her descriptions of everyday life are detailed and create a vivid picture. Here, Agnes has just buried her child: “It is even more difficult, Agnes finds, to leave the graveyard, than it was to enter it. So many graves to walk past, so many sad and angry ghosts tugging at her skirts, touching her with their cold fingers, pulling at her, naggingly, piteously, saying, Don’t go, wait for us, don’t leave us here….She is, she tells herself, meant to be leaving one behind here, but how can she? In this place of wailing spirits and dripping yew trees and cold, pawing hands?”
O’Farrell does an especially interesting job of creating a picture for the reader when she chronicles the travels of the black plague. There are 10 pages dedicated solely to how the plague ended up in the house of the Shakespeare family. It may have been my favorite chapter. The author describes the literal journey of the plague from Venice all the way to Stratford via fleas to monkeys to humans to cats etc!
I would recommend this book to those who like historical fiction, well-drawn characters and detailed and rich settings. If this sounds interesting to you, you can check out “Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague'' by Maggie O’Farrell in book, ebook or eaudiobook formats from the Lincoln County Library System. Review by Wendi Walton, Branch Manager, Alpine Branch Library.