Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

What’s it about?

Hamnet tells a story about grief, love and the bond between families. First, Hamnet’s twin sister falls ill with the suspected plague before Hamnet grows ill himself. Though all this, Agnes desperately tries to get word to her husband who is working away in London and to care for her ailing children. We also learn the story of how Agnes met and came to marry William and how they built their life together.

What did I think?

This was an interesting read as after 30 pages, for the first time in a long, long time I considering putting the book down and going for something else. Historical fiction isn’t always my favourite genre (although that is rapidly changing after reading His Bloody Project and now this) and I was struggling to settle into the book. The book isn’t necessarily slow to start either, but there was just something not quite clicking for me in the early pages. Thankfully, that abated, and I went on to discover a wonderful book.

One of the aspects that I found particularly thrilling about this book is the notion of a young William Shakespeare unhappy, confused and struggling through life in much the same way we all do. He makes mistakes, lets people down and is just as fallible as the rest of us. This isn’t just about coming up with a fun concept of what these characters might have been like but is in fact creating fully fleshed out and intriguing situation. Maggie O’Farrell has done a wonderful job in this regard. I also really enjoyed the elements of Agnes’s character which are almost mythological. This notion of who her true mother was, her knowledge and connection to nature and her ability to use this knowledge to help people in their time and need. And ultimately, how her own knowledge isn’t enough. Agnes is by far the most interesting character from her very first appearance in the book, as a young woman flying her falcon right through to the very end when she confronts her husband over the writing of a play named after their son.

The depiction of grief in this book is as moving and stirring as any I have ever read. O’Farrell perfectly encapsulates the various reactions to grief, Judith’s uncontrollable tears, Agnes’s numb, incomprehension or William’s desperate escape to the city and back to work. Through these lenses, we experience the grief in a multitude of ways all of which contain horror and sadness within them. It is Agnes, however, who we share the most pain with. A woman who has always know the direction her life was headed, what was going to happen next, is left broken by the sudden and unexpected loss of her child. Her husband, who she needs more than ever, leaves at the first chance he gets and takes comfort in other arms. Her battle through the murky depths of grief back into some form of living are stirring and powerful. The last 100 pages of this book are so painful and difficult that I stayed up late in to the night to finish them as it felt impossible, almost a betrayal, to walk away from Agnes while the grief continued. It takes an author of real skill and empathy to create something so powerful. 

This book is a marvellous achievement. To bring these historical figures to life and to give their story new meaning and depth is sheer brilliance. In many ways, its exploration of grief reminded me of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. They are vastly different books in style and the story they are telling but both portray love and the pain at its loss in wonderful ways using famous historical figures as the framework for their books. My starting point with this book may have been one of uncertainty but I ended up left in no doubt of the genius of what I had read. Maggie O’Farrell has written one of the years best books.

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