Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Even though not much is known about Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, as Maggie O’Farrell states at the end of her novel, she has imagined what his short life could have been like. To clarify, the novel Hamnet tells the story of Shakespeare’s family, and specifically on the death of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son. Despite the lack of knowledge about Hamnet, O’Farrell writes a novel of historical fiction, but also a magical novel that unfolds itself beautifully. This also comes forward in the quote mentioned above. While built on the little historical knowledge available, the novel reads like a fairy tale.
What first struck me was that this novel is solely about Shakespeare’s family, not about Shakespeare. I cannot recall reading the name William Shakespeare in this novel. This draws the attention away from Shakespeare as we know him: perhaps the most famous playwright from England. Instead, the novel focuses on Agnes (also known as Anne), his wife, and his children; Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet.
O’Farrell has constructed the narrative very carefully, playing with unchronological orders and writing styles. While it might take some getting used to the writing style, with its lengthy descriptions, I bet that you come to appreciate these descriptions as I did. The sensory descriptions allow you to imagine yourself in the novel, within Stratford-upon-Avon where a large portion of the narrative takes place. Maggie O’Farrell experiments with storytelling, successfully, for example in her description of how the pestilence traveled to England. While there is still a focus on the small details, this also allows you, as a reader, to imagine the overall picture of what was happening at that time.
The narrative has something fairytale-like, something magical, mainly caused by the character Agnes who is very spiritual. Other characters in the novel are more sober-minded. Even though little knowledge exists about the characters, the novel does a great job in imagining them. The novel focuses on the family of Agnes as well as William’s family, with whom Agnes lives in the narrative. Every character in the novel was important, played a role in the overall narrative.
Hamnet is a must-read not only if you love Shakespeare’s writing, but also if history and fairytale-like stories are among your interests. It’s both a devastating novel and a beautiful one. You’ll fall in love with the characters and the settings of the story. Maggie O’Farrell did a great job in imagining Hamnet’s life and the reason for Shakespeare writing the play Hamlet.