I was really lucky and received some beautiful books as presents at Christmas time, including Hamnet. If you’re on bookstagram you couldn’t move for seeing this book last year. It seems like Hamnet was universally applauded, which is cemented by the fact that it won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction award. With such strong recommendations and accolades, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
by Maggie O’Farrell
Published by Headline Publishing Group 31/03/2020
From the back of the book:
On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?
Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.
Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.
Wow. Just wow. What a book. I almost don’t know where to start … Perhaps I’ll begin with how much I loved this book. I l-o-v-e-d it.
Hamnet, despite its title, isn’t really the story of Hamnet at all, or his fairly famous father. (A certain Mr William Shakespeare.) Actually, Shakespeare is never actually named. He is only ever referred to as the ‘father’, ‘husband’ or something similar. Instead, the focus of the book is the beautiful, tender and imaginative story of Agnes, Hamnet’s mother and Shakespeare’s wife.
The narrative switches between Agnes’ youth and 1596 when as a mother-of-three the worst possible thing happens. Agnes’ upbringing is unconventional. A child of the forest, after her mother passes away she is brought up by a step-mother who shows her no love. Instead, Agnes finds solace in nature. She has a deep connection with everything around her. Her senses give her a supernatural awareness of what is both immediately happening before her and what is to come. She can read people through the flesh on their hands. I liked the mystical portrayal of Agnes and how her non-conformist notions confounded people around her, including her family.
What I found most touching and evocative was the theme of motherhood and the emotions that are wrapped so tightly around it – love, guilt, sorrow, wonder. O’Farrell’s portrayal of a mother’s grief is probably one of the most heartbreaking I’ve ever read. It’s handled with so much care and is so tender and full of heartache. I particularly liked the way O’Farrell changed the prose to be more broken up and disjointed as Agnes tried to process her grief.
Hamnet is a beautiful example of historical fiction and I implore you to pick it up if you’re one of the few who hasn’t done so far.
Have you read Hamnet? What did you think?
Thanks for reading, speak to you soon.