You don’t have to be a fan of the Bard – or even familiar with Shakespeare’s plays – to enjoy HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell. The writing and sensory description is incredibly effective, the emotion palpable.
While this novel should have been called Agnes, because this is clearly her story – and a mighty interesting one, at that – I suspect marketing decisions were made that would garner more attention (i.e. titling the book Hamnet). The majority of this book is not, in fact, about the death of a son (no spoilers – book jacket indicates this). But that makes it no less readable or engaging. I was fascinated by Agnes’s character!
An undergrad English major, I am, admittedly, fascinated by all-things Shakespeare. When I was in my twenties, I traveled to Stratford, and my hosts could barely pull me away. (I need to get back to my photo album and find the house where William and Agnes lived!) So, this book – and all the unknowns surrounding Shakespeare – appealed to me.
O’Farrell does a fantastic job of imagining who Shakespeare’s wife was, how the pair lost their son, what their marriage was like. Herbal remedies, psychic intuition, flawed characters, and a mother’s love kept me hooked from start to finish. And the characterization of a flawed marriage – but one, still, with love – had such deep emotional resonance. And Joan… Oh, I will say no more.
Examples of the lovely language within:
The heat from the fire is so great that Agnes’s cheeks have scarlet spots upon them; strands of hair have escaped from her coif to write themselves in damp scribbles on her neck.
He can feel death in the room … It will slide forward on skinless feet, with breath of damp ashes, to take her, to clasp her in its cold embrace…
Agnes feels a slight adjustment inside her, a minute sensation, as if a small, anxious animal is turning itself around. [Later]: Agnes is silent. The animal flexes itself restlessly, starts to scrape at her innards with its needling claws.
So, yes, I loved HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell. I loved the questions it brought to mind about creativity – that long-held postulate that the most creative are often tormented in their minds. As a freelance writer for more than 20 years, I particularly loved a musing by Shakespeare about his work: Is it good, is it bad, is it somewhere in between. How does a person ever tell?
I have been inspired to pull my old Riverside Shakespeare out for a reread of Hamlet! And the other O’Farrell book that has been on my shelves for years – The Hand that First Held Mine – is being moved up a notch!
(A version of Melissa Crytzer Fry’s review of HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell was published at GoodReads on March 07, 2021. It is reposted here with permission of the reviewer.)