Book Review: Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet”

From reading the blurb, this wouldn’t have been a book I necessarily swiped up and took straight to the till, but – seeing as it was “Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2020” (and had a particularly beautiful hardback cover) – I decided I would see what the fuss was about. While I do usually prefer a good thriller novel, I can pretty much read any and all genres, my preference usually dependent on my mood. Luckily for Hamlet, while other books I bring home face a gruelling wait on my shelf to be read, I found myself in the mood for something in-depth, moving, and thought-provoking: Hamnet did not disappoint!

The Plot…

Set in the 1500s in Stratford Upon Avon, Hamnet follows the lives of a young couple who meet, fall in love, get married, and have three children together: Susanna, the oldest, followed by twins, Judith and Hamnet. Timelines carefully interwoven so that the trajectory of this family’s tale is not told in the typical chronological order, Hamnet – although following a relatively straightforward plot – was incredibly engaging, the intricate details fascinating and the strong characterisations making me fully invested in their paths.

This book was inspired by the tragic context that envelopes the eventual creation of Shakespeare’s well-known play, Hamlet. While I was of course familiar with the story of Hamlet, I was unaware of the real-life events that would inspire – or perhaps compel – Shakespeare to write this. Just to be clear, this is indeed a fictional tale; simply Maggie O’Farrell’s interpretation of what the records in history insinuate, with names often reinvented, characters moulded by her creativity, and the emotion completely of her own wonderful imagination. In many ways, that’s what I enjoyed most about this novel: how this author has taken such a well-known play-writer’s famous tragedy, illuminated the hidden darkness surrounding it, and has written such a riveting, touching story from a few nearly illegible records, conjuring up the lives of people that lived centuries ago and giving them a pulse once more in fingertips of the reader. The death of a child in 1596, aged eleven. From that simple record, this wonderful tale was told, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Beautifully written, Hamnet featured incredibly interesting characters, a feel for everyday life in the 1500s, along with complex themes of unconditional love, familial tensions, 16th century death and disease, heart-wrenching grief, and what loss does to both individuals and family units. While I won’t give any spoilers, I will say one of my favourite details to the book was Hamnet’s mother having predicted her little boy a very long life from reading his palm – of course, Hamnet lives on to this day in the words of his Father’s play, re-enacted on stage again and again, taught in schools all over the world, and studied by so many. That was a nice touch, something that either softened or exacerbated the emotional wounds I carry from the plot of this story… I haven’t decided yet.

The Characters…

His name brandishing the cover in gold, bold lettering, Hamnet was, of course, a central character in this novel – and an endearing, thoughtful little boy he was. Tenderly loving towards his twin sister, Judith, warm and affectionate towards his parents, Hamnet was a selfless and brave boy, in ways that I cannot elaborate on without disclosing key spoilers. Just know that he was a wonderful character to follow along with, and definitely one of my favourites… However, my overall favourite was instead his Mother, Agnes.

With unruly black hair, Agnes is first introduced to the plot as a young lady, tending to her kestrel (much like a falcon for anyone who – like me – can’t picture a kestrel) and with a notorious reputation around town for being bad news. Possessing a deep connection to nature and the woods, a spiritual aura, a confident belief in herbal, natural medicinal healing, and a mysterious gift of foresight, she was a memorable character to say the least. As the reader follows her marriage, her escape from an abusive home, and the birth of her three children, we get to see every colour of her emotion, including the burning loyalty for her husband, the raw and immeasurable love for her offspring, bitter betrayal, paralysing grief, and every feeling inbetween.  

Would I recommend?

In short, yes. While this is a heavy book, not something you could read mindlessly as a way to relax and still know what’s going on, it was an incredibly moving tale and 100% worth the read (and worth the little departure from my favourite thriller genre).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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