In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, recent winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever. A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.”
Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a work of historical fiction that calls its readers to visualize the life of Shakespeare’s family in Warwickshire, imagining how they might have grown to live without him after he ventured off to London to become a playwright. This story, however, never states his name. It’s not to keep it a secret, as kernels of truth are the foundations that historical novels, including Hamnet are built upon. Lovers of Shakespeare will be able to put the pieces together, as there are plenty of markers that will guide them to that conclusion, and it takes but a look at the epigraphs in the beginning of the book to note that it is the author of Hamlet whose family this is, a family in reality that hasn’t been given much thought as they stand in the shadow of their successful patriarch. Never mentioning Shakespeare’s name directs readers away from the history we know, these clues only gestures that show he is not the focus, and it encourages readers to dive into this speculation, complexity, and tragedy of the family that was almost forgotten.
O’Farrell conducts prose in a mystic sort of cadence; she has a mastery of sentence and phrase variation that quickens time, slows response, illustrates confusion and panic, composes beautiful images, describes grief and sorrow through actions alone as she wills it. However, while Hamnet is formatted like a story to read, I find it is not that kind of story. It’s a story that’s meant to be listened to. Narrated by Ell Potter, the beauty of O’Farrell’s prose is given new wings. The haunting, quiet, and lilting way Potter takes to narration has O’Farrell’s tale weaving like poetry, wispy and solemn. Potter gives Hamnet the energy it requires so readers can feel every moment, every pause, every emotion.
That said, through O’Farrell’s imaginative writing and the beckoning voice of Potter, readers experience Hamnet. We struggle alongside Hamnet’s mother Agnes as she goes through childhood grieving and motherless. We struggle with her as she goes through motherhood essentially husbandless, as the husband she loves passionately is off working in London, visiting only a few times a year. Agnes’s origins are weaved into the present day in a way that gives readers insight on her history and how it affects her present so heavily she suffers under the weight. She’s used to knowing what to do in her past. She’s used to being a diviner of illness and a healer. Yet in her present, that knowing is tested when her youngest children, Judith and Hamnet both fall ill with the plague. Where one recovers, the other falters quickly, and loss is imminent. The novel in itself is a chance to imagine how a woman who has spent all her life finding the right answers has powers beyond her skill bat her hands away, especially in the moment where she succeeds, only to lose again. We grieve with her when she loses her mother, and we grieve with her again as she loses her son in the place of her daughter.
It takes a brave author to tackle a fictional account surrounding the great William Shakespeare, it takes an even more daring author to tackle writing grief with the loss of a child. To craft a story surrounding the loss of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet through the lens of his wife Agnes—well that takes a powerful understanding of human experience, a little bit of brevity, and exemplary literary skills. All of which are beautifully executed by Maggie O’Farrell in her eighth novel Hamnet.
O’Farrell’s take on the tragedy surrounding Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son is a refreshing take on historical fiction. The novel wasn’t so much about Shakespeare (as he remains unnamed throughout) more so it’s a brilliant take on how grief can create art, how life’s challenges test a marriage and the intensity of monumental life moments such as childbirth. As a reader, this novel stands as a testament to characterization, and I appreciated the authenticity each was crafted with. Moreover, the backdrop of the bubonic plague reads raw and timely as we continue to live in this “new normal” of pandemic life.
Whether historical fiction is your cup of tea or if you have any interest in Shakespeare for that matter, neither are necessary to sink your teeth into this enjoyable and sure to be classic read.
Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is pretty. Her writing is filled with gorgeous sentences and heartbreaking moments, not afraid to linger and dig and describe. Hamnet is about the death of Hamnet, the only son of William Shakespeare—a man O’Farrell goes to great lengths to never directly name in the novel—and how his parents work through their grief. Or, that’s what the book jacket tells me. The novel instead spends the majority of its 305 pages slowly building up to Hamnet’s death. During the first two-thirds of the novel, each chapter switches between the present moment centered around Hamnet, who is more concerned with his ailing twin sister’s health, and the past moment centered around Hamnet’s mother, Agnes, as she grows up and eventually marries her famous husband. Hamnet never tries to hide that its titular character dies. O’Farrell reminds us constantly that it will happen, with characters often recounting how they would have changed a moment or interaction if they had only known, so it doesn’t come as a shock but rather as a “finally.” By the time Hamnet actually begins to deal with the death of its titular character, it’s almost over.
Hamnet’s main flaw is that it can’t decide what it wants to be about—Hamnet’s death or Agnes’ life story. I found myself getting more and more frustrated as I kept reading because of this indecisiveness. During the more engaging Agnes chapters, I was frustrated knowing they had little relevance to the Hamnet chapters. Then, during the Hamnet chapters, I was frustrated because they tended to lack Agnes, who was the character the novel seemed most interested in because she’s the character that others are most interested in. The chapters individually are not poorly paced, but they do interrupt each other. Each time a new chapter starts, it means a new time period and point of view and set of struggles, which means it loses the momentum of the previous chapter because they do not interconnect. Instead of the sections flowing together or building concepts on top of each other, it’s more like reading two different books that got stitched into the same cover. I kept wanting the novel to just pick a time and stick with it. Hamnet only really hits its stride in the last third, when it loses the distraction of Hamnet’s story and is forced to focus only on Agnes. When working toward only one goal, working through Hamnet’s death rather than building up two separate stories, the writing comes together and is cohesive and engaging. The last third of the book deals with the grief and absence very well, it just takes so long to get there because the novel keeps tripping over itself with its dueling interests. And that’s the biggest frustration of all: the early sections themselves are not dull. They’re very good on their own merits. It’s just that the sections are focused on different things that don’t have much to do with each other aside from Agnes being in both, and Agnes is not strong enough by herself to be the thread to tie them all together seamlessly.
As frustrating as I found the novel’s indecisiveness, I also read this book in one sitting because O’Farrell’s writing is that engaging. She could make anything seem interesting—such as the journey of a flea on a boat that eventually infects a young girl with the bubonic plague, a plague that spreads from her to the titular character. O’Farrell’s writing is immersive. She explores the town, the nearby forest, and the farms that Agnes grew up in, that Hamnet ran through, that Shakespeare inhabited with details and moments that had me rereading them just to appreciate the writing. Even during an almost glacial build-up, it was something I endured because the writing itself promised that another moment was coming, that it would be worth it to stick around for another few pages. So, yes, Hamnet might be a bit confused on what it wants to be about, but O’Farrell’s writing makes it worth every frustration.
Curated by Brandon Williams