In 1596, young Judith comes down with a fever and lumps around her neck. Her twin brother Hamnet goes for help, but no one will come. Their mother Agnes is tending her bees, and their father is away in London. In a few short days, Hamnet will be dead.

I needed to read a winner of the Women’s Prize for Popsugar and I saw so many people praising Hamnet last year that I thought this would do. Honestly, if I hadn’t had needed it for Popsugar I would have not carried on past the first few chapters. Why is it necessary to tell me what happens at the start? This is why me and Literature don’t get along. However, I persevered and somewhere long the way I started to like it.

Someone told me the other day it wasn’t a plague book, but a good portion of the book is taken up by two kids suffering from bubonic plague. It’s about the effect of having someone taken from you suddenly by an awful disease that you can do nothing about. It’s about not being there for the death of a loved one. Isn’t this starting to sound familiar?

Among all the people saying they resolutely didn’t want to read anything pandemic related last year, I was really surprised to find out this book was centred around the plague. It’s not the big Plague, but still, even Maggie adds an author’s note to acknowledge that her book came out amid a pandemic and that there were similarities.

Me being me, that it was a plague book made me like it more. I liked the section where Maggie follows the infected flea and its ancestors over the seas, showing how this particular bacterium got into Stratford. It shows the ridiculous cures people tried, like tying a dead toad to the inflicted, but also how the “doctors” just left people to fend for themselves because they were too scared of the pestilence. Thankfully, our doctors have changed a lot over the centuries.

There is also a magical realism element, Agnes is a witch by many standards. She treats people with herbal medicine but also she can tell someone’s fate by feeling the skin between thumb and forefinger. She knows she will have two children at her death bed, she knows her husband has great potential.

So onto the husband. The big selling point of this book is that it’s about Shakespeare’s son. Very little is known about the man who was William Shakespeare and this story is based on just two parish records; the birth and death of Hamnet. In the story Shakespeare is never called by his name, I don’t know if it was intended for it to be a surprise that he was William’s son, but all the marketing ruined that. He’s actually a bit annoying as a character.

It’s mostly about Agnes. The story alternates between the children’s illness and her past, how she met her husband and the difficulties of living with his family. I found her stepmother was a bit of stereotypical evil stepmother and could have done without all that.

There is a lot of beautiful writing, that I can appreciate in small doses but it’s not really my favourite kind of book. I did end up enjoying it, so I guess thank you Popsugar for making me persevere.

20 Books of Summer #15

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