This book is what happens when a great writer decides to fill in the gaps of a factual outline. So many gaps in this case. We don’t know what killed Hamnet. We don’t know what William and Anne’s courtship was like, what their upbringing was like, why Anne and the children never moved to London with William … why he left her his second-best bed in his will.
Maggie O’Farrell weaves together an almost entirely plausible set of circumstances to answer all these questions. And then puts flesh on the bones of these most famous of historical characters, of whom we know so intriguingly little, as we watch them negotiate those circumstances.
I say almost entirely plausible because of the supernatural angle of Anne’s character (the author uses the name Agnes, by which Anne was also known). I agree with Hamlet on this point: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’ But I suspect that some readers will find that side of it detracts slightly from the plot’s credibility. But, then, this is a work of fiction, and not a historical research project.
Above all, this is a study of grief in all its rawness, its binding together and its tearing apart. It’s about what happens when you lose something so integral to your being that its renting seems impossible to overcome.
Don’t expect a happy ending. There can’t be one. But do expect a powerful ending. Because this is Maggie O’Farrell on top form.
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