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Hamnet
Cover of Hamnet
Hamnet
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NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life ... here is a novel ... so gorgeously written that it transports you." —The Boston Globe

In 1580’s England, during the Black Plague a young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman in this “exceptional historical novel” (The New Yorker) and best-selling winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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.

A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life ... here is a novel ... so gorgeously written that it transports you." —The Boston Globe

In 1580’s England, during the Black Plague a young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman in this “exceptional historical novel” (The New Yorker) and best-selling winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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.

A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.

    The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding himself along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.
     
    Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor.
     
    It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light. The sun glowers at him from outside, the windows latticed slabs of yellow, set into the plaster.
     
    He gets up, rubbing his legs. He looks one way, up the stairs; he looks the other, unable to decide which way he should turn.
     
    The room is empty, the fire ruminating in its grate, orange embers below soft, spiralling smoke. His injured kneecaps throb in time with his heartbeat. He stands with one hand resting on the latch of the door to the stairs, the scuffed leather tip of his boot raised, poised for motion, for flight. His hair, light-coloured, almost gold, rises up from his brow in tufts.
     
    There is no one here.
     
    He sighs, drawing in the warm, dusty air and moves through the room, out of the front door and on to the street. The noise of barrows, horses, vendors, people calling to each other, a man hurling a sack from an upper window doesn’t reach him. He wanders along the front of the house and into the neighbouring doorway.
     
    The smell of his grandparents’ home is always the same: a mix of woodsmoke, polish, leather, wool. It is similar yet indefinably different from the adjoining two-roomed apartment, built by his grandfather in a narrow gap next to the larger house, where he lives with his mother and sisters. Sometimes he cannot understand why this might be. The two dwellings are, after all, separated by only a thin wattled wall but the air in each place is of a different ilk, a different scent, a different temperature.
    This house whistles with draughts and eddies of air, with the tapping and hammering of his grandfather’s workshop, with the raps and calls of customers at the window, with the noise and welter of the courtyard out the back, with the sound of his uncles coming and going.
     
    But not today. The boy stands in the passageway, listening for signs of occupation. He can see from here that the workshop, to his right, is empty, the stools at the benches vacant, the tools idle on the counters, a tray of abandoned gloves, like handprints, left out for all to see. The vending window is shut and bolted tight. There is no one in the dining hall, to his left. A stack of napkins is piled on the long table, an unlit candle, a heap of feathers. Nothing more.
     
    He calls out, a cry of greeting, a questioning sound. Once, twice, he makes this noise. Then he cocks his head, listening for a response.
     
    Nothing. Just the creaking of beams expanding gently in the sun, the sigh of air passing under doors, between rooms, the swish of linen drapes, the crack of the fire, the indefinable noise of a house at rest, empty.
     
    His fingers tighten around the iron of the door handle. The heat of the day, even this late, causes sweat to express itself from the skin of his brow, down his back. The pain in his knees sharpens, twinges, then fades again.
     
    The boy opens his mouth. He calls the names, one by one, of all the people who live here, in this house. His grandmother. The maid. His uncles. His aunt. The apprentice. His grandfather. The boy tries them all, one after another. For a moment, it crosses his mind to call his...
About the Author-
  • Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, Maggie O’Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland and now lives in Edinburgh. She is the author of The Hand That First Held Mine (winner of the Costa Novel Award); Instructions for a Heatwave; This Must Be the Place; and most recently, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death.
Reviews-
  • Booklist

    Starred review from May 15, 2020
    How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? One ordinary afternoon in 1596, 11-year-old Hamnet's twin sister, Judith, is suddenly taken ill as the Black Death stalks Stratford's lanes. Hamnet's father is, as always, away in London. His mother, skilled with herbs and possessing a numinous second sight, recognizes she will lose one of her children. Yet even she is shocked when it is not Judith who dies, but Hamnet. Historical sources on Agnes (aka Anne) Hathaway Shakespeare are few, so O'Farrell's imagination freely ranges in this tale of deepest love and loss. Flashbacks document the Shakespeares' marriage; O'Farrell offering a gentler rendering than the traditional view. While Hamnet's death inspires aspects of Hamlet, Shakespeare is not the foremost player here ( He is all head, that one. All head, with not much sense. ); rather, it is Agnes, vibrant, uncannily perceptive, who takes center stage. While O'Farrell encapsulates atmosphere through small sensory details?golden honey dripping from a comb, the smell of lavender sprinkled into a vat of soap?she is laser-focused on human connections, their ebb and flow, and how they can drown a person. This striking, painfully lovely novel captures the very nature of grief.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from May 25, 2020
    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.

  • Kirkus

    July 1, 2020
    Imagining the life of the family Shakespeare left behind in Stratford makes an intriguing change of pace for a veteran storyteller. While O'Farrell eschews the sort of buried-secrets plots that drive the propulsive narratives of such previous novels as Instructions for a Heatwave (2013), her gifts for full-bodied characterization and sensitive rendering of intricate family bonds are on full display. She opens with 11-year-old Hamnet anxiously hovering over his twin sister, Judith, who has a mysterious fever and ominous swellings. When Hamnet asks his grandfather where his mother is, the old man strikes him, and as the novel moves through the characters' memories, we see the role John Shakespeare's brutality played in son Will's departure for London. The central figure in this drama is Shakespeare's wife, Agnes, better known to history as Anne, recipient of the infamous second-best-bed bequest in his will. O'Farrell chooses an alternate name--spelling was not uniform in Elizabethan times--and depicts Agnes as a woman whose profound engagement with the natural world drew young Will to her from their first meeting. The daughter of a reputed sorceress, Agnes has a mysterious gift: She can read people's natures and foresee their futures with a single touch. She sees the abilities within Will that are being smothered as a reluctant Latin tutor and inept participant in his father's glove trade, and it is Agnes who deftly maneuvers John into sending him away. She believes she will join Will soon, but Judith's frailty forestalls this. O'Farrell draws us into Agnes' mixed emotions as the years go by and she sees Will on his increasingly infrequent visits "inhabiting it--that life he was meant to live, that work he was intended to do." Hamnet's death--bitterly ironic, as he was always the stronger twin--drives the couple farther apart, and news of a new play called Hamlet sends Agnes to London in a rage. O'Farrell's complex, moving finale shows her watching the performance and honoring her husband's ability to turn their grief into art. A gripping drama of the conflict between love and destiny.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    February 1, 2020

    Winner of Costa, Somerset Maugham, and Betty Trask honors, the ice-pick-perceptive O'Farrell (I Am, I Am, I Am) reimagines the death of Hamnet, Shakespeare's 11-year-old son. Here, Agnes, a young healer who strolls about with a falcon on her shoulder, happily marries an impecunious Latin tutor. He's just emerging as a gifted writer when their son falls victim to the bubonic plague, and what's left is a couple shattered by grief.

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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