Novel Approach: Maggie O'Farrell's 'Hamnet' offers mesmerizing depiction of family grief

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.”― Edna St. Vincent Millay

Grief is such a universal feeling, yet it is experienced and portrayed in a multitude of ways. Some grieve by coming together, others require distance or silence. Our latest read takes us to a small home in Stratford, England, during Tudor England where a family faces a devastating loss.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

In her latest novel, “Hamnet,” Maggie O’Farrell crafts a portrait of a family as they lose one of their own to the plague in England during 1580. The story follows the young love between Agnes and a Latin tutor who later becomes her husband and the daily life of her children and relatives in the small town of Stratford. “Hamnet” begins with a young boy trying to find an adult to help his ailing sister and from there the novel spins out to detail how his family was formed, how it was fractured by loss and how the family makes steps to heal from their loss.

O’Farrell’s beautiful description palpably conjures the images of bucolic life in Stratford as she weaves her heartrending tale. At times the plot meanders as O’Farrell falls off course to share details about the town’s dislike of Agnes’ father-in-law or how her own childhood was shaped by grief and her cruel stepmother. Even when O’Farrell seems to be losing the trail of the story for these asides into the other character’s backgrounds, she captivates the reader with her bewitching prose. Each distinct character adds new layer to the family’s narrative as she gracefully offers a backstory to the events that could have inspired William Shakespeare (who is never referred to by his actual name in the novel, only as the father, the husband, the son, the Latin tutor, etc.) to write his tragic play, “Hamlet.”

Her mesmerizing depiction of Shakespeare and his family is not to be missed as she writes about the family’s personal tragedy with delicate care and compassion.

From the book jacket...

England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young, alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.

A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.

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Readers who are fond of historical fiction may also enjoy reading Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.” The novel tells the history of a fictional Hollywood actress as she shares her life story with a young journalist.