September 25, 2020
Genre/Categories: Historical and Biographical Literary Fiction, Family Life, Magical Realism
*This post contains Amazon affiliate links.
TW: Review mentions the death of a child.
Hamnet is set in 1580s Warwickshire, England and is the highly imagined story of William Shakespeare’s family, especially his son, Hamnet, and his wife, Agnes (Anne). It’s the story of a marriage and family. Shakespeare and Agnes had three children. It’s also a story of grief as we know from history that Hamnet dies. O’Farrell imagines that he might have died as a result of the 1550s plague. William Shakespeare is “off-stage” for the majority of the story and is never mentioned by name (referred to as husband, father, etc.). This centers Agnes (and the children) as the main character of the story and grief as the main theme. Agnes is a beautiful woman who has some supernatural gifts of healing with herbs, is entirely devoted to family, and frequently experiences glimpses into the future.
Writing and Structure: The first thing that will strike you about Hamnet is the exquisite writing. I was convinced within a few chapters that Hamnet is truly Literary Fiction. (the focus of literary fiction is on the craft of writing, social observations, the meaning of life, and heavily character-driven with the action being internal). This passage is from the opening pages and sets the stage for the story and foreshadows the tension, grief, and regret to come:
“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. Him standing here, at the back of the house, calling for the people who had fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water.
It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.”
This passage is especially compelling as I felt the desperation of this boy as he calls for help for his sister who has fallen ill. At the same time, I can strongly image his mother’s regret at not being there.
O’Farrell uses the entire book to detail a brief number of days in which the plague descends on Shakespeare’s home with devastating results. The filler is flashbacks of Agnes and William’s love story, early marriage, and family life. These flashbacks jump in a steam of consciousness way and readers can quickly lose their bearings if not focused. The flashbacks can take the reader to any time and place. It’s a challenging read in the sense of structure.
Character-Driven: Even though Hamnet is heavily character-driven, it contains enough plot to move the story forward. I liked that William was kept in the background (mostly offstage) to better focus on the imagined story of Agnes and their family. O’Farrell draws a beautiful and fascinating portrait of an intriguing and mysterious Agnes from her early romance with William to the realities of being a wife and mother in the 1580s to her profound grief to her rebuilding. Agnes is a strong, likable, and inspiring character.
Setting: O’Farrell’s depiction of life in the 1580s to the 1590s is detailed and atmospheric and I was transported there! It’s not often that we’re taken that far back in historical fiction!
Themes: As mentioned above, grief is the driving theme and its description is breathtaking and heart wrenching. Other themes include brother/sister relationships, mother/daughter connection, a woman’s life in the 1500s, and forgiveness. The story includes magical realism, connecting with the dead, foreseeing the future, and striking a bargain in the dying process. This was not my favorite part (affected my rating) and I would have been happy with less of the paranormal, but this is personal taste. Readers who love the paranormal aspect will find it well done.
Strong Trigger Warnings/Content Consideration: Most of Hamnet is focused around the death of a child and resulting grief. Because of this I feel like it’s an emotionally heavy read for anyone.
Recommended: Hamnet is definitely recommended for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, for readers of engaging historical fiction, for those who appreciate Literary Biographical Fiction and want to read the 2020 Women’s Fiction Prize winner, for readers who desire to know more about the woman behind a famous man, and for book clubs (with TWs). Because this is Agnes’s story, I feel like this could have been called Agnes, but the title probably wouldn’t have been as eye catching as Hamnet.
Thanks Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Blog for bringing the book to my attention. You will enjoy her thoughtful review!
My Rating: 4.5 Stars (rounded up to 5)
Meet the Author, Maggie O’Farrell
Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, MAGGIE O’FARRELL grew up in Wales and Scotland and now lives in London. She has worked as a waitress, chambermaid, bike messenger, teacher, arts administrator, and journalist in Hong Kong and London, and as the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. Her debut novel, After You’d Gone (2000) won a Betty Trask Award and was followed by My Lover’s Lover (2002); The Distance Between Us (2004), winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006); The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), winner of the Costa Novel Award; Instructions for a Heatwave (2013), and, most recently, This Must Be the Place (2016).
Is Hamnet on your TBR or have you read it?
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