Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve read and enjoyed three of Maggie O’Farrell’s books, The Hand That First Held Mine, Instructions for a Heatwave, and a memoir of the near-death experiences that have punctuated her life, I Am, I Am, I Am. So I was looking forward to reading her latest book, Hamnet, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year.

Set mainly in Stratford-on-Avon, it is historical fiction inspired by Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son and is a story of the bond between him and his twin sister, Judith. (At the time the names Hamlet and Hamnet were considered virtually interchangeable.) The central theme, though is the grief – the overwhelming and all consuming grief, that the whole family and in particular, Agnes, Hamnet’s mother suffered when he died at the age of eleven in 1596. Although the cause of his death was not recorded in the parish registers, in Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell imagines it was the plague.

The opening chapters confused me a bit at first as they cover the events in 1596 alternating with chapters about the time some fifteen years earlier when William Shakespeare, never named in this book, first met Anne Hathaway, also known as Agnes, pronounced Ann-yis. He was employed by her father as a tutor to his sons and much to her family’s disapproval they fell in love. Their first child, Susannah, was born six months after their marriage, followed by the twins in 1585. Four years, or so later, Shakespeare wrote the play, Hamlet giving its tragic hero a variation of his dead son’s name.

But Hamnet and Shakespeare are not the main focus, rather it is Agnes who takes centre stage. Little is actually known about her and she comes across to me in this book as a rather wayward, wild young woman when Shakespeare first met her, flouting convention and set on getting her own way, manipulating the people around her. Even Shakespeare’s decision to leave Stratford for London is presented as Agnes’s decision as she subtly persuaded him to leave. She was a skilled herbal healer and had the ‘second sight’ able to see a person’s future. Her grief over Hamnet’s death is intense, so overwhelming that I could hardly bear to read about it. It is a tragedy almost beyond telling – raw unrelenting, and powerful, especially the scene where she washes Hamnet’s dead body. I was relieved to finish it.

However, it is written in the third person present tense which distracted and distanced me from the story, although it is richly descriptive. There are some vivid scenes in the early part of the book, such as the scenes in the apple shed and later in the wood where Agnes gave birth to her first child. And an episode about a flea is slotted into the text, giving an explanation of the spread of the plague from Venice across Europe to Stratford. As this written before the outbreak of the current pandemic, it struck me as particularly prescient.

I also enjoyed the final section of the book in which Agnes travelled to London to see a performance of her husband’s new play, Hamlet. But in the middle section I found myself thinking the description passages were overwritten and this lessened their impact on me diluting somewhat the portrait of grief. Overall though, I found the whole book fascinating and I’m glad I read it.

  • File Size : 793 KB
  • Word Wise : Enabled
  • Print Length : 279 pages
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating: 3*

13 thoughts on “Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. It certainly does sound fascinating, Margaret! And that’s an interesting focus for the book, too – Agnes. I wouldn’t have thought of that! I agree with you about the present tense, in general. I dislike it very much, and I truly wish authors wouldn’t use it. But still, it sounds as though the story was absorbing, and I’m glad you thought it was worth the read.

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    1. Margot, I can’t understand why some books written in the present tense annoy me and others don’t – in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy for example it doesn’t bother me at all!

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  2. Thank you for the review. I am a big fan of Maggie O’Farrell so this is a must-read. I am not sure about the third person present tense but have to see how it works.

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  3. I’m on a waiting list at the library for this book but I don’t think people are returning their books at the moment – I’m still number 42 on the list!

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