11 September 2020

Hamnet & Judith by Maggie O'Farrell

 I was thrilled to learn that Maggie O'Farrell has won this year's Women's Prize for Fiction.   With less than a handful of pages to read before finishing I wholeheartedly agreed with the panel's decision.  Hilary Mantel's The Mirror & the Light was a brilliant contender but O'Farrell's characters are now firmly rooted in my reading memory.  And she reduced me to tears not once (as many have been) but twice.

The story begins with Hamnet coming down the stairs, as many children will do, by leaping over the last few rungs.  

   '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.'

Hamnet's twin sister lies in bed upstairs, feverish with lumps forming on her neck.  In searching for someone to tell, he's sidetracked by things that catch his eye while going from room to room.  It's a clever device to paint a picture of his surroundings.  His mother is actually a mile away tending to her bees.  Hamnet has been warned to steer clear of his grandfather but he's not sure why.  

The villagers come to the house and ask for his mother when they need a cure for one ailment or another.  This doesn't make her very popular with the doctor.  Agnes knows that tying a toad to someone's belly won't be as effective as her herbs and tinctures but she also understands the need to hide her disapproval.  Hamnet's father is away in London.  The reader is aware that he's none other than the playwright William Shakespeare, but O'Farrell's focus is Agnes and her story.

Agnes has a level of intuition that lands her with a reputation for being something of a witch.  She meets the eye of men while talking to them and carries a kestrel on her arm.  An instant attraction between Will and Agnes while tutoring her step-siblings causes friction between both families, largely due to unscrupulous business dealings in the past.

So what is it that makes this book stand out from others on the shelf?  An obvious place to start is the plague.  Watching for signs of fever, being in quarantine, restrictions on travel or escape to less populated places are relevant and all too familiar today.  Also, during this pandemic I've become a fan of nature writing and podcasts as a way of diluting so much bad news.  O'Farrell's description of bees in skeps and rolling meadows, drying fruit, the earthy feeling of walking on composted leaves in the forest or pressing lavender between your palms are sublime.   Beauty contrasting with grief.  And the writing is so lyrical you'll find yourself going over lines twice....

'The heat from the fire is so great that Agnes's cheeks have scarlet spots upon them; strands of hair have escaped from her coif to write themselves in damp scribbles on her neck.'

A friend mentioned going to the bookstore the other day so I recommended Hamnet & Judith.  When I mentioned the connection with Shakespeare there was a slight change in her level of interest.  We have our very own Stratford here in Ontario but depending where your tastes lie it's either relevant for the playwright and the wonderful theatre there, or for being Justin Bieber's hometown.  I wonder if our somewhat weaker connection to Shakespeare is why the publisher felt the need to change the title?  

 In any case, Hamnet & Judith is a brilliant read.   My suggestion is that you read it before it's discussed to death on radio programs and articles and too many details are revealed.  I loved it....and the twenty-something young lady ringing up my purchase at the bookstore swooned while telling me she loved it too.  Just buy it. 

Title and artist unknown


  1. I just finished this earlier in the week and, like you (like everyone, surely, who has read it?), loved it. I've already pushed it on to my mother for her to read.

    I find the title change intriguing and, knowing the story, quite like the Hamnet & Judith choice.

    1. Hi Claire! I'm sure your mother will love it as much as we did. And there's something about a chill in the air and apple season that just heightens the reading atmosphere for this book.
      Definitely a story I'll read again!

  2. I have never been so thrilled to hear of a book winning a major prize! I was so happy for this book and for Maggie O'Farrell. I read it back in the spring and it felt even more relevant then. Thank your for reminding me of the gorgeousness of her sentences.

    1. Don't you just want to press this book into the hands of everyone?! Even though it's been a few weeks since I finished it, I keep thinking about the characters and the setting. Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did, Anbolyn!