Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
R E V I E W — H A M N E T
Hamnet, Oh Hamnet, you absolute beaut of a book — inside and out. I am a reader who sometimes struggles with fictional accounts of real people as I often find myself wondering what is actually real and what is, indeed, fiction (I blame my History degree for this). But Hamnet completely worked for me, perhaps because it didn’t feel much like Shakespeare’s story at all — indeed, the Bard is never mentioned once by name — but rather, it is the tale of Agnes, his wife of whom little is known, and his family.
Built around one major event in 1596, the sense of foreboding that O’Farrell creates is palpable — as is the raw feeling of grief I experienced as a reader when young Hamnet does not survive. Indeed, the moment the Bard arrives back in Stratford to find the child he thought was safe and well is, in fact, the one who has died — I can only describe it as completely cutting. The ending of this book is one of most moving I’ve read in a good while — I don’t want to spoil it so just trust me on this. At a time when our whole world is in a state of shock and grief, which we have had to, in some ways, shut ourselves off from to function, the story of a young child, the son of a sixteenth century playwright, means more than ever.
O Farrell brings to life with ease another time, enveloping the reader into the intricacies of every day life hundreds of years ago with a sense of mysticism. It is so hard to create suspense with a known outcome however I became attached to Hamnet and dreaded the inevitable. The structure employed builds an important context to the characters, snippets of memory that speak volumes. The visceral and brutal way the grief of Agnes is depicted will stay with me for a very long time.
This is a magical, surprisingly hopeful, brilliant piece of work giving me an entirely new perspective of Shakespeare. Though it is fiction the underlying humanity depicted is universal and timeless. The relationship between Agnes and “the playwright” is layered in complexity and the portrayal of motherhood so detailed and relatable. I laughed, I cried and most importantly I didn’t want the book to end.