Book Review: Hamnet
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
Rating: 5 Stars
Read: December 2020
In 1580’s England, during the Black Plague a young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman in this “exceptional historical novel” (The New Yorker) and best-selling winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.
A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.
A boy dies at age 11 in 1596. A few years later, his father writes one of his most famous plays: Hamlet.
So, before I started this book, I knew it was highly likely that would love it. It has everything that I freak out about: historical fiction; flowery language; educated speculation about how people lived their lives; emotional family drama. Maggie O’Farrell delivered on all fronts. We really don’t know that much about Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway. (The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has some really interesting articles if you want to learn more.) I think O’Farrell did an excellent job blending truth and fiction into a believable narrative.
I absolutely loved being immersed in the world and the lives O’Farrell constructs with her sentences and her descriptions. Although this book is named after the son, we mainly glimpse into the life of Agnes, the playwright’s wife. This is a largely interior novel that goes back and forth through time and flows amongst the feelings of various characters. We first follow Hamnet, whose eleven-year-old twin sister, Judith, has suddenly fallen ill. Then, we are transported back more than a decade to a younger version of Agnes and the young man she comes to marry. The two timelines eventually converge as Judith’s illness reaches a peak, and Hamnet makes a decision that will alter the lives of his family members.
This is my first book by O’Farrell. I absolutely love her writing. It’s emotional, descriptive, and flawlessly sews multiple timelines and characters together. In O’Farrell’s imagining, Hamnet dies from “the pestilence” (the Black Death), and the ramifications of his family’s loss are written in a heartbreakingly beautiful way.
The novel’s end culminates in Agnes going to London to hunt down her absent husband. She has learned of his new play, Hamlet, from her spiteful stepmother, and arrives at what is presumably The Globe Theater looking for answers. I really enjoyed the ending, as O’Farrell chose to depict this famous play from the point of view of Agnes, someone who knows the playwright personally and measures the play’s success differently than the average viewer. Yes, I cried.
This book isn’t about the never-named playwright Shakespeare. It’s about Agnes and her life as a healer, mother, and wife in late 1500s England. It’s about a marriage and a family. It’s about life and the tiny moments that echo into the future.
I recommend Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell to anyone who loves historical fiction, imagined lives of famous historical figures, and descriptive language with lots of emotion.
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