This past week, I read two new historical fiction novels, set in very different centuries. What they have in common was their settings, as both take in the U.K. during flu pandemics. More striking was that both books are luminous depictions of motherhood, pregnancy and loss.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell gives readers an imagined look at the grief shared by a playwright and his wife, in Stratford, England in the 1590s, when they lose their son Hamnet to illness. Beautifully rendered, this novel is also about the couple’s courtship and marriage. Ultimately, however, this is the wife’s story. Agnes, in this book (though history tells us Shakespeare’s wife was named Ann), is a complex character whose own childhood comes alive here. An herbalist and healer, Agnes is a devoted wife and mother who isn’t sure she can handle returning to business as usual or the changed dynamics of her marriage after her son dies. She is further challenged her husband writes the play “Hamlet” (a name interchangeable with Hamnet) a mere four years after Hamnet’s death. And, while death from the “plague” wasn’t uncommon, with the removal of the lens of history, it is obvious that the impact of such a loss was just as devastating to a family as it is now. This book is already one of my favorites of 2020.
I dove further into women’s work in The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, a full-of-heart novel set in a war and illness-ridden Dublin in 1918. Over the course of three days, readers follow Julia Power, a nurse in an over-crowded hospital, who has been tasked with caring for pregnant women who have been quarantined by the flu. Under horrible conditions, Julia forms eye-opening, meaningful relationships in this short time with her coworkers, a 22-year-old orphan named Bridie Sweeney and a character based on real-life woman doctor and Irish patriot, Dr. Kathryn Lynn, who in this story, is wanted by police even as she saves lives. Though this book, too is filled with loss of life, it is ultimately a story of strength, survival and love. And, despite its graphic depictions of the on-goings of a maternity war and disease, I literally couldn’t stop turning the pages.