Fiction Review: Hamnet and Judith (Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist)

This was an ARC from NetGalley.

Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell

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In 1596, a young child dies in Stratford. The child has a twin, an older sibling, an mother thought to have special abilities, and a father who is becoming famous in London for his plays.

The father is, of course William Shakespeare, but his name is never mentioned in Hamnet and Judith. This is not really his story, but that of his wife Agnes (officially known as Anne in historical records) and how she comes to marry the playwright, have his children, and bear the tragic death of a child. Shakespeare himself flits in and out of the scene: he is in London, or back in Stratford for fleeting visits. Agnes has sent him away to make his fortune, because she sees that his abusive father is crushing her husband’s spirit. Agnes know things, in her own special way, and understands that this is what must happen. And so life proceeds, until illness and death invade the household.

This illness is the bubonic plague, which makes seasonal appearances in England, to the point where Shakespeare knows when playhouses will be shut and he may return home for a spell. One of the most stunning sections of this novel describes the chance encounters and events that take place in order for that child in Stratford to become infected.

“two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet”

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet and Judith

It is this randomness that makes what ensues even more heartbreaking, because it means that no matter how hard she tries (and, as a fierce mother, she does), Agnes cannot protect her children from harm. No parent can.

“Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath…”

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet and Judith

It’s hard to write about this novel without giving too much away, because there’s a central event that changes everything for Agnes and her family. It’s a beautifully written story, especially in the way it describes family dynamics. Agnes is very much an outlier, someone whose presence makes others uneasy, even as they find themselves in need of her herbs and cures. There’s an especially tense relationship between Agnes and her mother-in-law, Mary, until first the birth of the twins, and later the death of one, breaks the barrier separating them. Mary has given birth to more children than have survived, a tragic but all too common occurrence in her world. The twins’ birth, which she assists, makes Mary realize that she would have wanted more children; the death of one, years later, brings back her own memories of stitching shrouds and carrying too-small bodies through the streets of Stratford.

The other central relationship is that of Agnes and her husband, whose rising star begins to distance him from his family. But the playwright has, from the start, been described as someone who has “a whole country, a landscape” inside of him. Like Agnes, he is not quite of this world, and she recognizes him as a kindred spirit from the start. How they build a life together, and deal with birth, death, and disappointment, forms one of the central strands of the story. Agnes and her husband grieve the death of their child separately, each in their own way and not quite understanding the other’s reaction, until the final scene brings them together to finally confront the ghost that has been haunting them both.

Hamnet and Judith was my first read for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, and I’m really looking forward to exploring the other candidates for the award.

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