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*

WWW Wednesday: 30 September 2020

WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

The Three Ws are:

 What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m currently reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and am surprised that I’m not feeling enthusiastic about it; surprised because I’ve enjoyed her earlier books and Hamnet won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. It looks just the sort of book I usually enjoy. It’s historical fiction, set in Elizabethan England and it is beautifully written.

It has a strange, fairy-tale feel and I’m finding hard to settle into this book. I don’t feel involved. I feel I’m on the outside looking on from a distance. I think it’s O’Farrell’s use of the present tense, but I’m hoping I’ll feel more involved as I read on.

The last book I read was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a disturbing novel to say the least. My review will follow. For now here is the description from Goodreads:

Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Luke, the adventurous future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past. As they begin to cope with chilling, even horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead. For Hill House is gathering its powers – and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Reading Next: I’m really looking forward to reading A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin, published tomorrow, his latest Rebus novel.

When his daughter Samantha calls in the dead of night, John Rebus knows it’s not good news. Her husband has been missing for two days.

Rebus fears the worst – and knows from his lifetime in the police that his daughter will be the prime suspect.

He wasn’t the best father – the job always came first – but now his daughter needs him more than ever. But is he going as a father or a detective?

As he leaves at dawn to drive to the windswept coast – and a small town with big secrets – he wonders whether this might be the first time in his life where the truth is the one thing he doesn’t want to find…

My Friday Post: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

My extracts today are from Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, one of my favourite authors, and the winner of this year’s Woman’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve just started to read it.

The book begins:

A boy is coming down the stairs.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Hamnet climbs the stairs, breathing hard after his run through the town. It seems to drain his strength, putting one leg in front of the other, lifting each foot to each stair. He uses the handrail to haul himself along.


What a coincidence that both the opening paragraph and the extract from page 56 are about Hamnet climbing the stairs – first down and then up.

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home? 

This is historical fiction inspired by Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son and is a story of the bond between twins.