Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)
“The apples are turning on their heads; stalks are appearing from undersides, calyxes are facing sideways, then back, then upwards, then down. The pace of the knocking varies: it pauses, it slows; it builds; it pulls back again.”
I’ll admit it. I was never really that interested in Ann Hathaway. Shakespeare’s wife. I’m looking at the phrase I’ve just written, Shakespeare’s wife, and feel vaguely disappointed in myself.
Then I picked up Hamnet – not because of the title, even though I knew this is the name of Shakespeare’s son whose death inspired his play Hamlet – but because I had read O’Farrell before and never been disappointed.
This historical fiction repositions all the players on what was once a deeply familiar stage. At centre stage is Ann Hathaway, known here in this fiction simply as Agnes. Her role is complex and compelling: herbalist, healer, alchemist, falconer and gifted seer who enjoys sex and forges an independent path for herself throughout her life (1556-1623). Meanwhile, the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon moves in and out of the wings. And the son, to whom the novel is eponymously entitled, dies. Even in the opening scene you know the young lad is not going to make it – it’s a classic Shakespearian trope: to begin at the end. And sure it’s a tragic death, as are all those caught in the seasonal Bubonic plague that swept throughout villages in these times, but the one who fascinates and enthrals is always Agnes. Even the abusive villain, Shakespeare’s father, seems to walk off stage rather early.
So while, at first, I kept sitting up straight in my seat when Shakespeare strode onto O’Farrell’s stage – nudging the non-existent audience member next to me and nodding my head knowingly each time conventional bio data was thrown my way (his father was a glove maker … he attended a Grammar school … he could read Latin) – to tell you the truth, after a while, I lost sight of him and I didn’t care.
Without a doubt this is the story of Ann Hathaway – but for the first time I see her. I care about her. I believe in her. She is more than a wife or mother or daughter in law. She is her own person, complete, perspicacious and sure footed. And you know what … I really like her!
And as a writer myself, ever alert to how others write scenes that can be tricky – I applaud her sex scene in the apple storage room at the back of the work shed. That was seriously clever and written in a way that I had never seen before. In fact, I read this book while hanging out for a few days in Coonabarabran, north west NSW and I remember as we drove up to Narrabri telling my husband all about how she wrote that sex scene. It is brilliant! Innovative. Unexpected. Mmmm … quite inspiring, really…
Like many of us, I have a thing about Irish or Irish-British contemporary writers – Banville, Toibin, McBride – they have an ear on the heart of what it is to be human. I liked O’Farrell’s early novels but this one, Hamnet, is so cohesive and intense because of the larger than life character, Ann Hathaway.
And friends, I can assure you that well after reading this novel the stage lights remain ever bright on so many key scenes, the actors keep treading the boards in one’s memory and you can still smell the juicy ripeness of those apples.
Elizabeth’s first book, The Alchemy of Poetry, is available now! It would make the perfect gift for someone who is interested in the world of art and poetry and history and politics and love and death and war and the sublime – because the 160 poems selected in The Alchemy of Poetry succinctly and pitch perfectly offer all this and so much more!
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The Alchemy of Poetry by Elizabeth Guy
Published by Dreaming Big Publications
Paperback; 470 pages; ISBN-13 : 978-1947381414
Genre: Ancient, Classical and Contemporary Poetry; Education and Teaching; Non fiction