~ Book Review: Hamnet ~

Published March 31, 2020

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

Hamnet was one of those novels that felt like everyone else has read it but me, so I finally decided to try it. The story follows the life and death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet/Hamlet, who died at the age of eleven in 1596. The play Hamlet was written shortly after and staged in 1601. Maggie O’Farrell takes what little exists in historical documents and creates an entire story around it. The novel goes through Agnes/Anne Hathaway and her courtship with Shakespeare through their life with their children, Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith, before depicting the timeline after Hamnet’s death. While there is no documented cause for his death, it most likely leads to the plague based on the period.

The writing is difficult to describe as it feels like it is trying hard to become a prize winner rather than be accessible to the masses. Unfortunately, I cannot find the best way to describe it aside from it reads as if it was written for the purpose of trying to win literary awards rather than a well-written novel that happened to win awards. The story goes through the late 1500s where Shakespeare lives as a successful playwright in London while his family remains in Stratford due to the health of Judith. The unique thing about this story is that Shakespeare is a prominent character yet does not make a lot of appearances/references or if even mentioned by name. The novel can be dividing for readers as they may prefer either the first or second half. For me, I enjoyed the second a little more than the first, but I think neither was strong as they did not feel cohesive.

The author did a great job at creating a biography without venturing too far from the recorded events. Without knowing the actual truth, the writing makes the events seem plausible. The emotions shine the brightest in this story with the love, grief, and feelings of life and this was the most well-done part of the story. There are shifts in tones and styles, but the story felt like it had potential. I think many readers will love everything about this story and that it lives up the hype. For me, it was decent, but did not quite get there. Overall, this novel may not be a re-read, but I enjoyed the author’s style enough to read more from them in the future.

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