Maggie O’Farrell is much possessed by death. Her first novel, After You’d Gone (2000), chronicled the inner life of a young woman who finds herself comatose following a near-fatal car accident. And a recent piece of non-fiction, I Am, I Am, I Am (2017), gave an account of O’Farrell’s own numerous brushes with mortality.Her latest novel returns to this pre-occupation with the undiscovered country. In it she sets out to tell the imagined story of the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who perished at the age of 11, four years before his father wrote the play that would share his dead son’s name — in Elizabethan England, the spellings Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable.
O’Farrell opens her narrative with the young boy moving through the rooms of the houses of his parents and grand-parents in search of assistance for his twin sister, Judith, who is ill in bed with chills, a fever, ‘a swelling at the base of her throat’ and ‘another where her shoulders meet her neck’.