A boy in Stratford is looking for his mother, or anyone, really, because his sister is ill. He runs through his house, the workshop, the gardens, the street. So begins this desperately beautiful book. The word Shakespeare is never mentioned – William is always called the husband, the father, the brother. It is almost as if O’Farrell does not want to use the name, as if he could get in the way. The important people in this book are Agnes, the name used for Anne Hathaway, Judith, Susanna, the girls that live, John, Mary, his parents, Joan and Bartholmew, Agnes stepmother and brother. This is a book of the people that were important, the houses, the gardens that were the setting for a brief life and the effect of a boy’s brief life. This book is incredibly lyrical, moving and intensely written. It is packed with imagery, careful descriptions and love for a narrative that is completely absorbing. It has been a privilege to read and review this extraordinary book.
The opening of this novel is memorable. It is like a long scene in a film, as a young boy runs from room to room, past the place where he played, through the workshop with a grandfather who he has been warned of, into a street where everyone seems to have disappeared. If it had been a straightforward story of a boy’s illness and death, it would have been harrowing. This book is far more subtle than that. The focus goes to a young man, forced to tutor a family of boys, who gets a glimpse of a young woman with a bird. The story of that young woman is then told, of a marriage with a strange girl which is almost a folk tale, which leads to the birth of Agnes, a woman with hidden depths and abilities. As is suitable for a novel which concerns a man with a huge imagination and ability with words, this book is full of images which suggest much, words about the plants and flowers that Agnes grows, collects and uses. The cures she uses for people who come to her, the herbs and plants that she tries to save her children with. It is elemental, describing birth and fear, love and torment.
The alternating storylines work exceptionally well in this book; it is not an easy subject, and it is a novel with enormous ambition to take the few details known of Shakespeare’s only son and create a story which has so many themes. The complications of family relationships, the reason why Agnes was William’s choice, the implications of a child’s death. It includes a strange and unsettling chapter on the causation of this particular case of illness, which seems totally dissociated from the rest of the narrative, yet explains so much.
This is a powerful book which is a monumental achievement even for an experienced author. In some ways it is a densely written book, full of images and little stories which shows enormous understanding of the time and setting. In other ways it is lightly written, handling the biggest of emotions strongly felt by vividly alive characters. This book is an achievement by any standards, and deserves to have a huge success.
I was especially pleased to get onto the blog tour for this book – the recent publication of this booked has had to be advertised on social media. I found it very moving, especially at the moment. Meanwhile, I still have lots of other books to read, so plenty to review over the next few days!