Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I purchased Hamnet on a whim as I had no knowledge of the book, which as a reviewer of books is shocking to admit, but true nonetheless. I quite like fictional excursions that are set around the time of Shakespeare and also, those which feature him (with the exception of one F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, which marred my vision of Shakespeare for a while). As so little is known about him, he is a great character around which one can speculate; on his life, times and personality. Maggie O’Farrell takes this idea and weaves a very human depiction of the bard, his wife, their marriage and ultimately, the loss of Hamnet, their only son.

I wasn’t sure about this book to start and I think that it comes from the fact that O’Farrell never mentions Shakespeare by name but often in the context of the relationship he has with the person with whom he is interacting in the text i.e. when talking to Agnes, his wife, O’Farrell refers to Shakespeare as “the husband”. I’m not sure why – is it to distance him from the fact that he is so renowned to us as a playwright that she wants to bring him down to Earth in our consciousness by reference solely to his familial relationships? I have to say that initially I found this distracting but once I found my reading rhythm, this was of no consequence.

This was a great book. Charting when Shakespeare meets Agnes when he is a Latin tutor to his strained relationship with his father, through to their marriage and their children and then, of course, to Shakespeare’s imminent departure for London to fulfil his writing ambitions, the book covers less Shakespeare and more Agnes, the wife he left behind. Agnes is a mystic, able to read people easily and this adds an extra element to the story as she senses human emotions and conflicts. In terms of the children, initially the narrative is focused on Hamnet but attention shifts from him to how his death impacts those around him.

The story that O’Farrell creates around Hamnet is one of emotion: it made me cry at one point, so fully immersed was I in her word crafted world. This, to me, is a sign of good fiction: it is not the remembrance of the words themselves but the way that those words have made you feel.

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