Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Published by Knopf, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In a bold departure from her previous work, O’Farrell attempts to paint a portrait of the relationship between William Shakespeare and his wife, particularly concerning the death of their 11-year-old son.
It’s important to note that the names Hamnet and Hamlet were entirely interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day, and so the primary question O’Farrell concerns herself with is why The Bard chose to name that particular play/character after his deceased son. The second (and most interesting) thing to note is that Shakespeare is never actually named throughout the novel. By only ever referring to him based on his various roles in life and relationships to others (the son, the husband, the tutor, the father) O’Farrell cleverly accomplishes two things: Firstly, she humanises the myth, reminding us that Shakespeare was much more than just a writer; he was a man who endured the same hardships and cherished the same things as everyone else. Secondly, she vindicates his wife and children, allowing them to take the spotlight for once, subverting the norm of having them defined solely by their connection to him.
With little detail known about Shakespeare’s wife (now believed to have been named Agnes, rather than Anne) or the death of their son, O’Farrell does a great job of breathing life and emotion into their story. I have to say, however, that the narrative structure and pacing didn’t entirely work for me. The first two thirds of the novel are split into a dual timeline, jumping between the early courtship of Shakespeare and Agnes, and the events years later that lead up to Hamnet’s inevitable death. This nonlinearity added nothing for me, and there’s an oddly drawn out attempt at misdirection regarding the fate of Hamnet and his twin sister that felt redundant given both the book’s blurb, and the story’s real-life historical basis.
Initially, I also felt O’Farrell’s prose was somewhat laboured; the push for a rich, evocative feel coming off as overwritten. Whether she found her stride with the historical setting, or whether I simply got sufficiently drawn in for it to stop bothering me, this problem did lessen as the novel progressed. Where the book excelled unwaveringly, however, was its eventual portrayal of a family blindsided by grief. She captures their bewilderment as individuals and as a unit with real fervour.
It’s a daring move for any writer to tackle the intimate life of the writer, and whilst I certainly found it compelling, I do think it ultimately failed to stick a proper landing. O’Farrell clearly undertook this novel with the aim of answering key questions about Shakespeare and his family, but the attempt at a revelatory denouement felt both hurried and underwhelming, proving why those questions have remained unanswered for so long. Still, it’s a book I had high expectations for, and despite feeling it didn’t quite capitalise on its full potential, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it.
Thank you to the publisher for an advanced copy via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
You can pre-order a copy of Hamnet from Book Depository by clicking here.