Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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.

 

24 thoughts on “Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. Oh Liz, these are the words that came through loud and clear to me: “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.” Fiction, in the hands of a passionate writer, has enormous power to bring us into the story. We become a bystander who experiences the full spectrum emotions. This sounds like an extraordinary read!

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    1. You are so right (as always)! The way this book is written totally transports the reader back in time and we find ourselves mixing with those C16th folk, with all their worries and concerns, just as we have today. Brilliant.

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  2. Like you, Liz, I’m a great O’Farrell fan. However, this has had such mixed reviews and it is on a subject that I am always wary about (the fictionalisation of anything to do with Shakespeare’s life) that I’m still humming and haaing about whether or not to read it. When our current situation is over, it’s bound to turn up on one or other of my book group lists; I think I’ll wait till then.

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  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Liz. I’ve read several reviews from fans who’ve been disappointed but that quote suggests O’Farrell has brought a different quality to her writing than perhaps those of us who’ve enjoyed her contemporary-set fiction are accustomed to.

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    1. You are so right, Susan – it definitely has the same MO’F tone that we all know and love, but she has adopted a more expansive style. I thought it worked really well but can completely understand that it would not be to everyone’s taste.

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  4. I just reviewed this too. I enjoyed it a lot, and really liked O’Farrell’s writing. I can’t say I think it’s a prize winner, but it’s a good novel and I really enjoyed the setting and the immersive nature of the story and the writing.

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  5. This sounds great, yet another book to add to the list, there are so many books that I need to read and yo keep adding to it! If that sounds like an annoyed tone that would be right, as I will never make inroads into my reading at this rate. Also keep the recommendations coming as I love the depth of choice you provide!

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  6. Excellent review, Liz! I haven’t read anything By Maggie O’Farrell before and the subject of the novel appeals to me. Maybe I’ll wait until the pandemic has lessened its grip before attempting it, though. I’m not able to concentrate for long at the moment and that would spoil the read, I’m sure. Take care and keep well xx

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    1. Thanks so much, Clare! I know what you mean about lockdown reading – I am finding that I have to make very careful choices about what I pick up. You take care too xxx

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