Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

This is the brilliantly imagined story about Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son who inspires the writing of the play Hamlet.  But it’s more than that. It’s a story about Hamnet’s mother, Agnes (Anne) Hathaway, the wife of Shakespeare.

The first half of the novel sets the scene.  Judith, Hamnet’s twin sister suddenly falls ill and her bewilderment is described in detail.

“She cannot comprehend what has happened to this day. One moment, she and Hamnet were pulling bits of thread for the cat’s new kittens … and then she had suddenly felt a weakness in her arms, an ache in her back, a prickling in her throat. … Now she is on this bed and she has no idea how she got here.” 

Hamnet desperately tries to find help for his sister.  His mother is out looking after her bees, his grandparents are not where they should be and his father is away in London. His desperation grows as does our anxiety for him and Judith. Then, it slips back in time between chapters from the present day to when Hamnet’s parents meet. Their love is genuine despite the 8-year age gap (Shakespeare is said to be 18) between them and when Agnes falls pregnant, they marry.  

In the second half, Agnes comes home to find her child ill. With her herbal remedies and gift for seeing into the future she desperately tries to keep her child alive.

It is imagined that the child falls sick from the plague and the author provides a delightful side story about a flea and its journey from continent to continent via the sea until it comes to rest in the village and bites Judith. It makes for even more compelling reading given the state of the world we now live in and the migration of our present day virus.

The other fascinating thing about this book is that Shakespeare’s name is never mentioned. He is merely referenced as the tutor, the father, the husband which serves the purpose of pivoting the story squarely on his little-known wife. Indeed, we become familiar with the detail of her everyday life:  her marriage, childbirth, living with her in-laws, moving from country to town, the separation from her husband and the subsequent death of her child.

Imagery so fine, that we can imagine ourselves there. “She is drifting through the apartment, touching things as she goes: the back of a chair, an empty shelf, the fire irons, the door handle, the stair rail…. She is … out the apartment’s back door, which leads into a shared yard… she fires the oven in the cookhouse and coaxes the dough into rounds, adding a handful of ground herbs from the kitchen garden.”

Losing a child was more common than it is today but is nevertheless just as painful. No detail of the mother-child bond is spared and the depth of grief is raw with emotion.

The other characters are well drawn and the love between Agnes and her husband and the bond she also has with her brother is moving.   

A novel, beautifully crafted and lyrically executed makes this one a joy to read.

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