I am sure Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet needs no introduction. This book is brilliant and utterly addictive – I finished it in two sittings. Hament follows Agnes and her family as they come together in a time of terrible grief. By never naming the famous husband the reader is able to focus on the everyday domesticity of 16th Century life and consider how Shakespeare-the-man interacted with others as a husband, son, tutor etc…He is never the focus, Agnes very much is and the author does an excellent job of rooting her and her family in Elizabethan England. It could have been any other family, yet we are so close to Agnes that we feel her pain, her joy and her love viscerally.
The narrative moves between ‘present day’ when all her children are alive and her husband is away with his troupe and her early life, the Shakespeares’ early lives and then begins to move forward again in part two. I found this worked really well to give context when needed and never altered the flow of the story. I loved how O’Farrell waves early English folklore into the tale, especially given the links to storytelling the novel already has in following the family of Shakespeare. Agnes is portrayed as a gifted herbalist, with somewhat mysterious ways, but is scorned by the neighbours for it and rumours fly that she has strange darker gifts too. This labels her as someone to be wary of yet by connecting her with nature from a young age, the forest and woodland in particular, O’Farrell links her to old English tales of wise women, witches and wood-dwellers and all the magical mystery they entailed. I know some have found this jarring as we think we know the bare bones this story has sprung from; Shakespeare had a wife, their son died tragically young, they lived in Stratford-Upon-Avon. But this is fiction and the small magics work really well with O’Farrell’s prose.
I also really enjoyed how the author portrays relationships, particularly Agnes and her brother Bartholomew. We see how close they were as babes and watching their relationship grow, change and develop is so heartwarming. He is always there for her and is everything a brother should be and their love for each other is a ray of light in the darker times explored in the latter half of the novel. We’re not taught much about Agnes and her family when we learn Shakespeare at school and I am so glad Maggie O’Farrell included them here.
We are told at the beginning that the names Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable, so I spent a lot of time wondering how the beloved son would be immortalised in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Hamlet (in the play) is not a particularly likeable character and I was skeptical of how the author would link the son’s death with the creation of the play. I won’t spoil it for you, but I was well satisfied.