This is the passionate love story of a glove-maker’s son and Agnes, a wise-woman. It is the tale of an absentee father, living and working at the playhouse in the city. Meanwhile an errant flea hops from monkey to human, cat, rat and into a cargo, ship-bound for England. Now here’s young Hamnet desperately searching for his family to help his twin sister, abed with fever. And now the story turns to the wise-woman, renowned for her knowledge and foresight, who fails to recognise that it is her son she will lose, not her sickly daughter, sickly since birth. This mistake will haunt her for the rest of her days.
Years on the father writes a ‘tragedie’, which, when Agnes sees her son’s name displayed on the playbill, compels her to discover why her husband has so misused Hamnet’s memory. Her anger is palpable. His constant absence means that he has forgotten his son; that she alone bears their grief. Where is he when she needs him, this unnamed playwright, this glove-maker’s son, this absent father, this husband who loves her? As a mother to a family with an eerily similar makeup and circumstance, sadly, I found O’Farrell’s intuitive perceptions on losing a child heartwrenching and yet comforting to me.
This extraordinary novel, written almost entirely in the present tense, has lilting, rhythmic phrasing: “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre”; “She releases his hand which feels raw, peeled, ravaged.” There is an in-the-moment immediacy, an urgency for the reader to discover what comes next; a vivid description of first lovemaking as the drying apples bounce on their racks. Dialogue is sparing. Each and every word must be savoured, even as we feel compelled to hurry on. A spectacular tribute to a young boy whose name would be erased from history but for this anonymous playwright, his epic play and O’Farrell’s brilliance. Breathtaking!