Review: Hamnet

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.

hamnetIn 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

39 thoughts on “Review: Hamnet”

    1. The plague is prominent mainly for its importance in the plot, so it doesn’t get a ton of page time but does feel heavy in the story. Especially since it seemed in a lot of ways to mirror what’s going on currently. I hadn’t realized it would be quite so important in this story and wished I would have, so I thought it best to warn. 🙂 I hope you’ll enjoy this one!

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  1. I’m glad this worked better for you than it did for me! I loved the long descriptive passages and the evocative sense of place as well.

    I’ve been thinking about the Hamnet/Hamlet connection since I finished reading this, and I think two of the problems in the book are interlinked – because we never get much sense of Hamnet as a person, it’s hard for us to see what Agnes sees in Hamlet. It would be so much better if something of Hamlet’s character was evident in the younger Hamnet.

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    1. Thank you! I’m VERY interested in (finally) reading more of O’Farrell’s work now! It was definitely the detailed writing that stood out for me here.

      That is a great point. I did find it rather conspicuous that Hamnet’s character wasn’t developed further despite his central role, and I definitely agree that it’s an obstacle to making meaningful connections between him and the play, and thus his parents’ responses. I was preoccupied with the weird balance between Agnes and WS; the refusal to name WS but also needing to show enough of his character to attempt explaining the play seemed to be working toward opposite purposes, but I think you’re right- Hamnet is really in the middle of it all, and strengthening his character could have helped resolve some of the book’s other imbalances and unanswered questions.

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      1. Totally agree that there should have been more Shakespeare. I wish the narrative had been more evenly balanced between him and Agnes, although I’m not really bothered as to whether he’s actually named or not.

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      2. Oh yes, I don’t mind that he goes unnamed, I just wasn’t convinced it made any difference to the story when his character was so present anyway!

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    1. Thanks! I agree, the story could definitely have been stronger in several ways, but the writing did make for a fun read at the surface level at least. And reading it this late in the (largely underwhelming) longlist definitely helped it stand out for me, I think!

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  2. Great review! Glad you enjoyed this a lot, especially the immersive writing style. I’m somewhat surprised that this is also a wider exploration about family and parenthood… there really does seem to be a theme running through the longlist this year.

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    1. Thank you! I had such a good time reading this one. I remember seeing Callum’s review earlier this year (he read it before the longlist announcement, I think) so I knew there would be a focus on family, but that definitely stands out more amid the rest of this family-focused longlist. It really must have been intentional that the judges chose so many motherhood books, which is… frustrating. It makes me wonder whether the nominees this year that focused on other topics lost their chance just because they didn’t fit the theme? It would be so interesting to sit in with the judges and see how they hash out things like this.

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      1. That’s really interesting, since I was always under the impression that literary prizes were somehow themed?? Although now that you mention it, it really does feel unfair to other books that might not have fit the (unconscious) theme of this year. It also makes me wonder if the portrait of women presented by the prize this year is very narrow, since we’re talking mostly about being a wife and mother.

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      2. I’ve not read very many longlists in their entirety (I think this is the fourth) but I’ve never encountered one where EVERY book addresses the same theme of this specificity. Usually it seems to me that there are broader strokes. Like, last year’s Booker Prize (the most recent longlist I’ve read) seemed to me to focus on past mistakes and/or anxieties for the future, but that manifested in so many different ways and there were a lot of different points being made. Whereas this theme of motherhood, generally as a source of discontent but also of loyalty, does seem very narrow. Maybe it is more unconscious than it seems, and maybe a theme is more common than I’ve noticed, but for some reason all of the books this year are feeling like variations on the same perspective lately. But I am probably reading too much into it, I’m starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist!

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      3. It’s fine, I love a good conspiracy theory! The takes on motherhood do seem to be kind of narrow. Maybe it’s because we’re just beginning to question such standards as a society that makes the perspectives very similar. Hopefully though we’ll get to see more diversity this year for the Booker—I wonder if it’ll push through given the pandemic, plus a lot of publishing dates are being pushed back.

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      4. Yes, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what happens with the Booker this year! I think it’s still on schedule for the longlist announcement in July, but things do seem very up in the air and susceptible to change these days. I would think that publications pushed back would just end up being eligible in next year’s cycle, but I have no idea whether they would just go with that or try to adjust the timing to accommodate. It will be interesting to see what happens.

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      5. That’s true. I hope the book industry doesn’t suffer so much during this pandemic – I feel so bad for all the authors set to release their books during this period. Side question, have you ever followed the International Booker like the WP? It seems concurrent with the Women’s Prize, and I’ve also looked forward to its announcements.

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      6. Yes, I’ve heard sales are suffering with bookstores closed, which must be very tough for authors who are publishing right now! I hope stores/publishers will find a way to push the new releases when things open up again so they don’t go overlooked.

        I don’t follow the International Booker as closely as the WP, at least not so far. I usually like to see the announcements for the lists and winner and add the titles that sounds most interesting to my TBR, but I haven’t been as good about keeping up. I bought last years winner and still haven’t read it yet! I think I’ve only read one of last year’s books so far. But I do want to increase my intake of translated fiction in the coming years, and I think that with the WP “winner of the winners” vote coming up this year I’ll be crossing a bunch of those titles of my list and will have more time to dedicate myself to other prizes. Having two going on at the same time is always going to be rough but I really want to do better about reading the translated books, even if belatedly! Do you follow it more closely?

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  3. Great review, and I’m glad you enjoyed this one! I love immersive prose, as well as novels that make a large emotional impact – so your review is very encouraging! And I appreciate your warning about the plague being a major focus of the book – definitely good to know that in advance.

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    1. Thank you! It’s not a flawless book but SO compelling- I hope you’ll love it when you pick it up!
      The plague focus did take me somewhat by surprise, and really stood out given the timing. It doesn’t get a ton of page time but is very important to the plot so it pops up repeatedly. I wished I had been warned, so thought I better offer one!

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  4. so great to see that you enjoyed this! i think this is definitely one of the titles from the longlist that most people have been mostly responding positively to ☺ ive only read one other novel by O’Farrell but i remember enjoying it so hopeful this one will be just as good 🙌

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    1. Thanks! I’m so eager to check out more of O’Farrell’s work now- I’ve heard from other readers that this one maybe isn’t her strongest, but I found it so engaging. I hope you’ll love it when you get the chance to pick it up!

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  5. After reading through the comments on this post, I’m surprised by how many readers had issues with the novel but have it high on their list. I can’t tell if readers of the Women’s Prize list are just slowly lowering their expectations because so many books have let them down, or if they’re leaning toward poking holes in the reason a book was chosen as a prize contender in their reviews.

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    1. A little of both, possibly. I know a lot of the Women’s Prize bloggers (those who are on my radar, at least) have been feeling pretty underwhelmed with this year’s longlist, and after reading several of the books most reviewers do seem to be adjusting expectations accordingly. But part of the fun with reading a prize list is definitely expecting that you’re reading some of “the best” books of the year, and when finding anything that doesn’t live up to those expectations we’re left to wonder what the judges saw in it and criticize the choice! Reading and judging what’s “the best” is of course subjective, and not something I take too seriously, but a lot of prizes do claim in their mission statements to be highlighting the best books of the year under whatever specified criteria they feature (e.g. books by women); and so debating which ones are truly “best” is part of the appeal of reading them. I don’t think anyone reads the full longlist expecting to love or agree on all of the books, though we definitely have high hopes and expect to enjoy the experience!

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      1. Part of the fun for me with following along (I’m not reading the prize contender books) is that I do get to see how opinions create a general feeling around the list (this year is disappointment), but also that I get to see what people use as criteria for “best.” I suppose for me all the best books I’ve read are emotionally memorable. Even some of the hardest experimental literary fiction I’ve read (like Jaimy Gordon’s Bogeywoman) left a huge emotional impact on me. Many of the bloggers I’m following who are reading the WP books look at how deep a book digs and if the author missed an opportunity to dig deep, which is interesting, too.

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      2. It’s definitely fun to have a whole bookish community reading the same books and seeing what opinions come out! With everyone reading the same material you can start to get a sense of different habits and tastes between readers by looking at varied reactions to the books. It is for sure interesting to see what readers value differently! I think emotional impact used to be a bigger factor for me, whereas in the last few years I’ve become more impressed by technical skill and layers- books that have a plot, but also a deeper commentary; and bonus points if the structure contributes to the presentation as well. Of course I do like when a structurally impressive story also has big emotional impact. But my priorities are definitely skewed to my personal taste, and everyone’s will be different!

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      3. I think I flip-flopped from you; I looked at layers and technical skill for a long time and let it go in the last few years in favor of an emotionally-impactful story. That’s interesting to think about!

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    1. Yay! I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂 I was really somewhat surprised at the plague playing a major role in the story (though given the year and setting I probably shouldn’t have been); I wished I had had a little warning, but once I got going I did like seeing the little parallels between what was happening then and now.

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      1. It’s funny, the thought of reading about a historical plague doesn’t bother me as much as the idea of reading something with a plague or disease that’s set now or in the near future, even if that’s technically more fictional.

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      2. That’s true, I would definitely agree it’s easier to read about a past event that already has an end date than anything left uncertain. I also think futuristic pandemic/etc. stories aim to frighten or horrify whereas historical accounts are more about showcasing survival and resilience in the face of tragedy.

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  6. Oooh, was it The Memory Police you read? I think I remember you reviewing it. To be honest, I didn’t know it was concurrent with the WP! I only know the winners when the sticker of winner shows up on the book covers. Translated fiction is something I eventually want to read more of, though, but we’ll see! Maybe in the future. My favorite prizes remain the WP and Booker, with the Costa as a third, though I don’t follow that as closely.

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