We’re in the final stretch with the Women’s Prize longlist! Today’s update is my review of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, a historical fiction novel I absolutely adored.
In the novel, William Shakespeare and his wife, who is here referred to as Agnes, have three children- two girls, and a boy, Hamnet, the latter of whom dies of the plague at age eleven, in 1596. Hamnet and his sister Judith, who also falls sick, are twins.
“How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?”
The book is divided into two parts, the first alternating between the family’s past and the 24 hours leading up to Hamnet’s death, and the second part comprised of one long chapter following the family beyond Hamnet’s death. O’Farrell shares in a note at the beginning of the text both the age at which Hamnet dies, and the fact of his father writing a play titled after him four years later, and thus the story’s major events are not treated as shocking plot twists but instead as the basis for an emotional journey in the lives of one historic family. The dual timelines in the first half of the book help the reader balance the foreboding of this impending event with happier times- William and Agnes meeting for the first time, their marriage, the births of their children. It’s a fairly simple, very effective, structure.
The reason I loved this book was, plain and simple, for the writing. I’ve not read any of O’Farrell’s work before, and though I’ve heard plenty of praise, I was not prepared for how swept away I would be by her style. It is, admittedly, a bit elaborate and overly involved, with lots of imagery and descriptions that aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, so surely this will come down to reader preference. Usually even I prefer sparser prose, but there’s a beautiful sense of rhythm to Hamnet‘s sentences that I found incredibly immersive. Reader be warned though, that this could potentially be a difficult read in our current global state, with the incurable “black death” plague being a main feature.
” ‘He wears the mask because he thinks it will protect him,’ she says. / ‘From the pestilence?’ / His mother nods. / ‘And will it?’ / Her mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so. Not coming into the house, however, refusing to see or examine the patient, might,’ she mutters.”
Aside from the prose, pros and cons are mixed. I liked the way O’Farrell leaves Shakespeare unnamed through the entire novel, giving his family a rare chance at the forefront, although the attempt to sideline him even partially is rather undermined by the fact that one of the book’s main purposes seems to be displaying the grief that leads Shakespeare to write one of his best-known plays. However, if the intent of the novel is indeed to explore the reasoning behind Shakespeare’s writing of Hamlet, I think the narration does not explore the connections between the play and the circumstances of Hamnet’s death closely enough for it to succeed in that regard. There are threads pointing in every direction, enough so that it is actually a bit unclear where exactly O’Farrell is trying to lead the reader.
Despite being the most prominent character, Agnes is not quite isolated enough in the narration for this to feel like her story, and nor is Hamnet given enough personality for it to feel like his, however central his role. Rather, this book is a wider examination of family, (which should come as no surprise to anyone reading along with the 2020 longlist at this point). Like many of this year’s longlisted books, Hamnet asks the reader to reconsider what we expect good parents to look like by presenting unique and imperfect people who, despite appearances, are trying their best with what they’ve been given. We see Agnes, an unconventional woman with a penchant for nature and an abusive stepmother; she’s a strong woman who won’t change her personality despite the ridicule she (and thus her family) faces from her community. Shakespeare, though flawed, for his part does at least value his wife and her eccentricities. His love for her and for their children provides a counterweight to his long and frequent absences from the family home. Other members of the family are present on the page, though given less depth. Even though the approach, as with many of the other longlisted books I’ve read, lacks nuance, it does at least make for an engaging story.
“They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was.”
But the book isn’t entirely a thematic dud. Emotion is very much at the story’s center, and I think the book excels as an examination of love and grief. The unchronological structure serves as a reminder of the ways in which the two emotions can be delicately linked, and likewise can bind the people who experience them together. The narration traverses both the delights and devastations of marriage and family life, braiding them all into one all-encompassing strand. I felt everything.
The best part: you do not need to have read Hamlet to enjoy/appreciate this novel. I’ve actually read very few Shakespeare plays thus far, and that list does not include Hamlet. I have since ordered a copy though, because O’Farrell left me curious.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would’ve preferred this book to present a bit more commentary or takeaway beneath the surface, but can’t deny that I loved every moment of the read regardless. Though I’m not sure whether this title will appear on my shortlist wishlist (I wanted it to accomplish a bit more than emotion) I am confident it will feature at or near the top of my longlist favorites list. This may have been my first O’Farrell book, but it certainly won’t be my last!
The Literary Elephant