Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Title: Hamnet
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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.

New York Times Notable Book (2020), Best Book of 2020: GuardianFinancial TimesLiterary Hub, and NPR.

Hamnet is a powerful, emotional, beautifully written story about grief, mourning, and sorrow. Also, Shakespeare.

In Hamnet, the main point-of-view character is Agnes, although we do get passages from the perspectives of Agnes’s children and husband too. Agnes is gifted with sight and special powers. A talented healer, she can also see people’s futures simply by touching them. About herself, she has one clear vision: She will be the mother of two children.

When Agnes meets her husband, the son of a disreputable glovemaker and Latin tutor to her stepbrothers, they’re immediately drawn to one another, and eventually marry. Agnes can see her husband’s unhappiness casting a shadow over their lives. He lacks purpose, a means of fulfilling his own pursuits — so she sends him off to London, ostensibly to further his father’s business interests there. They plan for him to get settled, then send for Agnes and their children.

But all does not go as intended. Already the parents of a healthy girl, Agnes soon delivers not the 2nd child she expects, but a 2nd and 3rd. The twins are a girl and a boy, the girl born so weak and fragile that she was not expected to survive. She names the babies Hamnet and Judith, and they are inseparable. It soon becomes clear that moving to London will never be an option for Agnes and her children — Judith’s health is too delicate to allow her to live in a crowded, dirty city. And so Agnes and her husband live apart, with him returning for visits when he can, although he’s achieving success as a playwright and creating a separate life for himself in the world of theater.

But Agnes can never quite forget her own vision, of herself as the mother of two children.

She fears her foresight; she does. She remembers with ice-cold clarity the image she had of two figures at the foot of the bed where she will meet her end. She now knows that it’s possible, more than possible, that one of her children will die, because children do, all the time. But she will not have it. She will not. She will fill this child, these children, with life. She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way. She will defend her three babes against all that lies beyond this world. She will not rest, not sleep, until she knows they are safe. She will push back, fight against, undo the foresight she has always had, about having two children. She will. She knows she can.

When “pestilence” — the Black Death — reaches the family’s home in Stratford, it’s Judith who is stricken. But Hamnet will not abide the idea of losing his twin, and eventually, he is lost while Judith survives. Agnes and the family are plunged into the horrors of loss, the devastating death of a child punching a hole through the fabric of their lives.

In Hamnet, Shakespeare himself is never named (he’s always the husband or the father or the son), but we know who we’re reading about. It feels appropriate for him to be presented in this way — if the story were about him, his life and career would overshadow all the rest. Here, though, it’s a story about a family, and especially about a mother, trying to find a way to live in the shadow of unbearable grief. The father’s way of dealing with the loss, through the power of his words, is just one aspect of what the family experiences.

The writing in Hamnet is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not usually a fan of “literary” fiction, but this novel is an exception for me. The carefully constructed characters, the lyrical descriptions of their world and their lives, and even the passages describing the transmission of the plague are all presented in a way that’s beautiful and haunting and powerful.

Hamnet is a special book, and I’m so glad my book group chose it for this month’s discussion. Once again, thanks to the group, I’ve read an excellent book I might otherwise have missed!

Very highly recommended.

To read more about Hamnet:

New York Times review (written by Geraldine Brooks)
NPR review
Washington Post review