Book Review for “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell
For those who don’t know, Hamnet was the name of William Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of 11. In O’Farrell’s latest novel, she takes up the scholarly presumption that there was a direct connection between his son’s death and his play “Hamlet.” To do this, O’Farrell draws detailed portraits of two main people – Hamnet himself, and his mother Agnes (aka Anne) Hathaway. Together with this, O’Farrell also draws a simpler, yet no less meticulous, portrait of Hamnet’s father, almost as an aside to his relationship with these two main characters. Goodreads says that this is a “luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss…”
I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book, many of which have picked up on things I was originally going to write about myself. For example, Shakespeare himself is never named in the book. In addition, there’s a whole passage which O’Farrell included here, which ended up being (far too) relevant to our present world pandemic, that being where she traces the minutia of how one wave of the plague reached Stratford. Reading that, and knowing that travel then was nowhere near as popular or widespread as it is now, no one would be surprised that this pandemic we are living through would be so devastating. Mind you, the few lines about how all the London playhouses were closed down as soon as the plague appeared made me think that at least Queen Elizabeth I and her Parliament knew how to handle such things much better than some countries (including the UK) are doing today!
Politics and current events aside, since other bloggers have exhausted all those talking points so nicely, I decided that for this review I’ll concentrate on three, less discussed topics. First, on O’Farrell’s writing style in this novel. Next, I’ll look at her character development. Finally, I will talk about how this book differs from her other novels. Now, as my regular readers know, I’ve read all of O’Farrell’s novels as well as her memoir, and so I believe I’m well equipped to approach this review from these particular angles.
O’Farrell’s writing style is what drew me to her books in the first place. What I find to be magical about her writing is how she’s able to use her language to build up an atmosphere. In this book in particular, O’Farrell has adapted a slightly more poetic quality to her writing, with highly descriptive passages, many of which felt pensive, dark, and a touch brooding. Yet, there was still an underlying level of lightness here, to keep this from feeling too gray. These descriptions are used to paint pictures of both the characters and the locations, as well as how the former moved through the latter. As someone who visualizes the action of the books as I read, this worked perfectly for me, and I could easily see everything and everyone that O’Farrell put down on each page. In fact, there were a couple of times when O’Farrell described the scent of something where I almost was able to imagine that same smell! If you ask me, that is artistry in writing at its very finest!
This leads directly to how O’Farrell developed her characters. What was most fascinating here, was that my ability to picture each character was accomplished with an absolute minimum of dialog. Usually, a character’s mettle is often revealed in what they say, in addition to what they do. However, O’Farrell accomplished this by concentrating more on getting into the minds of the characters than letting them speak for themselves. She showed us their gestures, their moods, their thoughts, as well as how their bodies moved within the spaces where she placed them. We saw them change and grow and develop, much like (pardon the cliché) watching a flower bloom. In the end, while Agnes ends up being the primary protagonist, each character portrayed here – no matter how minor – was believable, and flawlessly developed and formed.
How this book differs from her other novels is twofold. First, this one has a tiny touch of magical realism, where Agnes seems to be a bit of a psychic, which she seems to pass on to one of her daughters. This time, I wasn’t bothered by this at all, probably because back then people were very superstitious, and it fit in with the overall narrative and character development. Second, all of her previous books were either contemporary fiction, or had mixed contemporary and historical dual timelines. If I recall correctly even with the historical parts of O’Farrell other novels never went further back than early(ish) 20th century. This novel, however is not only fully and totally historical fiction, it is set far further back in time than any of her other books. And not just by one century, but reaching back to the late 16th century and very early 17th century, no less. Now, I’m a huge lover of historical fiction, especially biographical historical fiction, so this was absolutely no problem for me whatsoever, but this certainly was a departure for O’Farrell. I can only hope that her faithful fans won’t find this too startling of a departure, and can still enjoy it as they have done with all her previous works.
Finally, the way O’Farrell concludes this novel, had me weeping like a baby! Now, it isn’t often that one reads biographical, historical fiction (where we already know who will live and who will die and even how and when), that something appears in a book that makes you surprisingly emotional, but this one does just that with the last page. Taking all these things into account, what we have here is… well… nothing short of a masterpiece. There is therefore no way I could give this less than a full five stars. I will be recommending this to anyone and everyone, even people who don’t like historical or biographical, or women’s fiction.
PS: This novel was just shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Fiction prize (and I hope it wins)!
Tinder Press in the UK released “Hamnet: A Novel” by Maggie O’Farrell on March 31, 2020, and in the US by Knopf on July 21, 2020. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and Bookshop.UK, or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.