“…grief has no shape and no edge”
Hamnet was, apparently, interchangeable with Hamlet, in those times, and thus was the son of “the un-named author” called. As an aside the not-naming of Shakespeare does seem a redundant artifice given that there are not many other plays called Hamlet…
The author’s wife, Anne (here known as Agnes) is a delightful character: a ‘seer’, a woman given to walking in woods at night, knowing and growing of local herbs and ‘remedies’, and who is raising a young kestrel at the time the author first encounters her. She falls pregnant, they decide to marry, but it is an unlikely match, not least because he is ‘under-age’ and requires his parents’ consent, while he has little by way of prospects to reassure the future in-laws. Meanwhile, Agnes’s brother, the immense but taciturn Bartholomew, hovers in the back ground, earning his way as a young farmer – he comes in useful at certain key points in the story, with occasionally delightful interjections.
Agnes and husband, already having had their first child, have twins from her second pregnancy: Hamnet and Judith. Judith is a sickly child, never as robust as her brother and when she falls ill with what seems to be a plague-like illness, her brother tries to trick death – the twins have long had a game of taking on each others’ appearance to fool adults, and Hamnet thinks he can do this again.
I admit to starting this with some trepidation…I tiptoed through the first couple of hundred pages, of essentially “Mantel-lite” tudor England, without much conviction. But once it hit the stage of a child’s death and moved into the realm of grief, its rituals, how is it experienced and exhibited by the different individuals, the preparation of the body for the grave, the loss, the devastation and the endless revisiting in the years that follow the death, then I felt like I’d reached the core of the book, and suddenly it felt satisfying: a meaningful read, rather than an entertainment.