Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favourite authors – someone whose latest book I would always actively seek out. I was delighted, therefore, to be granted access to a review copy of her new book, Hamnet, on NetGalley. What a wonderful read this is.
From the blurb:
Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.
I always enjoy books which explore the lives of famous people or well-known events from an unexpected perspective. The genius of O’Farrell’s text is that it makes a virtue of ‘the elephant in the room’. William Shakespeare is not named once in the book – in fact we experience his character as almost incidental to the main story, which focuses principally on his wife Agnes, how her life is affected by her marriage into the Shakespeare family, and how she is affected by the fate of her children, most particularly her son Hamnet.
It is easy to see how Shakespeare himself as a character could have totally dwarfed the narrative, thus eclipsing O’Farrell’s purpose in writing the novel, namely to give agency to the other people in his life. In Agnes’ case, we have even got her name wrong over the years. Most of us would think of Shakespeare’s wife as being called Anne. But apparently her father cited her as Agnes in his will and, as I have heard O’Farrell say in interviews recently, he should know the name of his own daughter.
The reading of this story is enhanced by the depth and beauty of O’Farrell’s approach to her text. It reads like historical fiction meets nature writing:
She brings a honeycomb out of the skep and squats to examine it. Its surface is covered, teeming, with something that appears to be one moving entity: brown, banded with gold, wings shaped like tiny hearts. It is hundreds of bees, crowded together, clinging to their comb, their prize, their work. She lifts a bundle of smouldering rosemary and waves it gently over the comb, the smoke leaving a trail in the still August air. The bees lift, in unison, to swarm above her head, a cloud with no edges, an airborne net that keeps casting and casting itself. The pale wax is scraped, carefully, carefully, into a basket; the honey leaves the comb with a cautious, near reluctant drop. Slow as sap, orange-gold, scented with the sharp tang of thyme and the floral sweetness of lavender, it falls into the pot Agnes holds out. A thread of honey stretches from comb to pot, widening, twisting.
This is a book to wallow in. But beware – total immersion makes it all the more unbearable to experience with Agnes the tragedy that befalls the family. You know what is coming, and yet the power of the narrative pulls you along, helpless to spare yourself from being affected by the family’s grief, the cause of which is attributed by O’Farrell to the Plague. This brings an inadvertently prescient tone to the book. The chapter describing the journey of a flea from the Mediterranean to Stratford is particularly compelling and is of course an all too real parallel with the world in which we currently find ourselves. Art imitating life writ large.
I did wonder before starting this book whether I would be at a disadvantage, as I am not particularly knowledgeable about the detail of Shakespeare’s plays. Would I miss lots of clever references? I needn’t have worried. This is simply a stunning imagined fiction about a famous family, the members of whom have not, until now, had the kind of exposure they deserve. Highly recommended.
With grateful thanks to publisher Tinder Press for a review copy via NetGalley.