In her 2017 memoir I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, British writer Maggie O’Farrell details the many times she has come close to the brink. Near-drowning, mismanaged childbirth, the close call of a car boot smacking her five-year-old head. A debilitating childhood illness, a lark with friends gone wrong; so many occasions in which events could have gone either way. ‘There is nothing unique or special,’ O’Farrell writes, ‘in a near-death experience. They are not rare; everyone, I would venture, has had them, at one time or another, perhaps without even realising it…We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.’
This visceral awareness of the thin membrane separating life from death pervades O’Farrell’s novels. Her plots unfold against the humdrum rhythm of daily life when tragedy and devastation are abstracted and the precipice upon which all lives teeter is easily ignored. Apparent order is suddenly tipped into chaos by an unsettling presence, an insistent echo, or a fuzzy object at the edge of a character’s vision. As her characters wrestle with their haunted states, the edifices they have constructed around their lives and identities become suffocating and oppressive, demanding to be dismantled. In The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (from 2006, reviewed on this blog in 2019), an elderly woman is released from lifelong incarceration in an asylum and the injustice that put her there demands reassessment and remedy, with her descendants taking on the responsibility of righting the past. In The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), the birth of a baby reveals cracks in the story a family has clung to for generations. In Instructions for a Heatwave (2013), disconnected siblings are involuntarily reunited after their father disappears. In This Must Be The Place (2016), an Irish linguist living in New York grapples with the possibility that he contributed to the death of a former girlfriend.
O’Farrell’s latest novel, Hamnet, is a reimagining of the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of eleven from bubonic plague. In an interview with the Guardian, O’Farrell states that she has been fascinated by Hamnet ever since she learnt of him at school, and believes that his life and death have not been given proper weight or consideration by critics and academics. She takes particular issue with the idea that parents in the sixteenth century did not grieve their children merely because the child mortality rate was high.
Superficially, its Elizabethan setting and portrayal of actual historical figures characterise the novel as a departure from O’Farrell’s oeuvre of ‘contemporary domestic gothic.’ Indeed, much of the publicity surrounding Hamnet portrays the novel as an attempt to lay to rest the scholarly debate on whether Hamnet’s death inspired Shakespeare to write the play ‘Hamlet.’ While O’Farrell acknowledges this debate in her foreword, interrogating Shakespeare’s writing process is not her primary motivation. William Shakespeare is never named; in fact he is barely present, with the vast majority of the plot taking place in Stratford-upon-Avon while the playwright is in London. Rather, Hamnet can be seen as a continuation of O’Farrell’s established preoccupations, foremost of which is the necessity of confrontation with painful realities and repressed truths. While in her previous novels such confrontation hinges on the airing of shameful family or personal secrets, in Hamnet, O’Farrell draws attention to grief as an enduring state of being rather than as a transitory experience, and to the way in which the act of loving another is, in itself, a confrontation with death.
O’Farrell’s fiction consistently draws attention to the unrealised insight of lost moments and the claims of the unmourned. Her creative mission is to carve out a space in which profound emotion can be expressed, while avoiding simplistic notions of ‘closure’. Hamnet’s family members are disoriented by his loss. Part of this is shock at the rapidity with which life is extinguished; as Hamnet is laid out in preparation for burial, ‘[t]he soles and nails still bear the dirt so recently accrued from lie: grit from the road, soil from the garden, mud from the riverbank, where he swam not a week ago with friends.’ Because of the plague, his mother, Agnes (O’Farrell reverts to an alternative spelling of Anne Hathaway’s name that is found in some records) is required to relinquish Hamnet’s body shortly after death. Unable to observe adequate mourning rituals, she feels cut adrift; ‘more and more, her own life seems strange and unrecognisable to her.’ Similarly, as there is no word for a twin who has lost its twin, Hamnet’s death renders his twin sister Judith a stranger to herself.
In I Am, O’Farrell alludes to the inadequacy of language in coming to terms with loss. She recounts her experience of unexplained secondary infertility, which caused her to suffer numerous miscarriages. She writes that ‘losing a baby, a foetus, an embryo, a child, a life, even at a very early stage, is a shock like no other,’ and is aghast at the way society treats such losses as unspeakable; as ‘spirits, wraiths, who never breathed air, never saw light. So invisible, so evanescent, that our language doesn’t even have a word for them.’ For reasons that are also scientifically unexplained, O’Farrell’s body does not recognise that her unborn children have died, but she takes the unwillingness of her body to ‘let go’ as a visceral confirmation of the incomprehensibility of such loss.
One of Hamnet’s uncles articulates the dilemma facing the entire family following his death, wondering ‘how will we live? What will we do now?’ These are especially painful questions for William and Agnes, whose differing reactions initially tear them apart. William is away in London at the time of Hamnet’s death; initially summoned because Judith is gravely ill, he arrives to find that it is Hamnet, instead, who has died. As he goes back and forward to London, the heaviness of grief will not go away; ‘[h]e feels as though he is caught in a web of absence, its strings and tendrils ready to stick and cling to him.’
In many memoirs of terminal illness, it is not the fear of death that the writer is consumed by, but, rather, the prospect of eternal separation from their loved ones. Reflecting on mortality in her book Therapies of Desire, philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes that:
the intensity and dedication with which very many human activities are pursued cannot be explained without reference to the awareness that our opportunities are finite, that we cannot choose these activities indefinitely many times. In raising a child, in cherishing a lover, in performing a demanding task of work or thought or artistic creation, we are aware, at some level, of the thought that each of these efforts is structured and constrained by finite time.
Loving another entails opening oneself to the possibility of their loss; the very act of loving another is thus a confrontation with death. To me, this explains why confrontation with pain is so important in O’Farrell’s work; as the death of a loved one is the ultimate confrontation with pain, by denying death, we diminish our ability to love. In O’Farrell’s writing, the trick to survival is not to erase pain, but to sit with it; to hold it. It becomes the new centre. ‘Every life,’ proclaims the narrator in Hamnet, ‘has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything radiates out, to which everything returns.’ Hamnet is, at its core, a story of death rewritten as a story of love. It is originally Judith who falls in, but in a magical scene, Hamnet swaps himself for her; the ultimate act of love.
In the final chapter of I Am, O’Farrell reveals that her second child- a miracle baby whose twin died at an early stage in utero- has severe anaphylaxis, which results in her coming close to death many times a year. Consequently, O’Farrell and her family live ‘in a state of high alert.’ Reflecting on the process of writing a memoir, O’Farrell told the Guardian: ‘I realised that trying to pin down in words what she goes through was my way of trying to feel in control but that control was illusory.’ She has spent countless hours poring over emergency plans for when her daughter has an episode, and trained her oldest child to say ‘at the age of six, how to dial 999 and say into the receiver, “This is an emergency case of anaphylaxis.”’ Agnes is portrayed by O’Farrell as a mystical healer; despite being sought after for her special knowledge, she is ultimately unable to save her own child.
Love is also the desire to protect your child from both physical harm, and also from losing their innocence. Having survived a chilling encounter on a mountainside with a man who later went on to rape and murder another young woman, O’Farrell contemplates the task of warning her children about ‘what dangers lie around corners for you, around twisting paths, around boulders, in the tangles of forests… there are people out there who want to hurt you and you will never know why.’ In Hamnet, Agnes’s instinct is to protect her husband from the knowledge of their son’s death: ‘Agnes looks at him and he looks back at her. She wants, more than anything, to stretch this moment, to expand the time before he knows, to shield him from what has happened for as long as she can.’
When Agnes hears that her husband has written a play named after their son, she feels a confused distaste, as though her husband has invoked her son’s name purely for his own ends. Travelling to London to see it for herself, her understanding transforms with the appearance of the ghost. By writing the play, Shakespeare has pulled off the very feat that is impossible in ordinary life: bringing back the dead. It chimes with her with her own desire ‘to scratch the ground, perhaps with a hoe, to score the streets beneath her, so that there will forever be a mark, for it always to be known that this way Hamnet came. He was here.’
The final word is reserved for the ghost: ‘remember me’.