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.
What I Thought:
Ordinarily, I would post a reasonable-length review, having considered a book for a few days and my response to it. I’ll try and make insightful comments to persuade you that this is a book that you really must be reading.
But with Hamnet, I’ll simply say you MUST read this book.
As with all of us, my knowledge of Hamnet Shakespeare could be written on the back of a postage stamp, but Maggie O’Farrell brings him to life vividly and so beautifully, and the impact of his life and death on his family is portrayed incredibly well.
I’ve struggled through Shakespeare plays, both in school and having gone to see them, and have not really ever seen the man behind the curtain. This book turns a man whose genius we are all supposed to admire without question into a human, with all the good, bad and ugly that that entails. I know, I know, this book is a work of fiction, but there are many tiny details that we know to be true woven through Maggie O’Farrell’s imagination, and it rings so very true. There’s even an explanation for the famous story of Shakespeare leaving his wife, Anne Hathaway, his second best bed!
And Anne Hathaway herself (in this book called Agnes – commonly interchanged with Anne in the period) is brought out of her husband’s shadow and her influence on his life is completely reframed. Here, she is not the older woman who trapped a free spirit into marriage, but a free spirit in her own right, with her own interests and beliefs.
I have a thorny relationship with what one might call ‘literary fiction’, I often find flowery language interferes with my enjoyment of the plot, but I think this is the first book I’ve read in a long time that is breathtakingly beautiful (both in design and in content) and never allows language to overwhelm the story. Not having read Maggie O’Farrell before, I’d no idea what vivid mind paintings she was able to conjure with her writing, but a description of something as simple as a flower being blown in a breeze is just beautiful.
I adored this book and feel so fortunate to have read it slightly in advance of everyone else. I would urge you to buy it, read it and share it!
Hamnet is published by Tinder Press.
You can find out more about Maggie O’Farrell and her work on her website. Be sure to keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter too, as there are lots of things going on around the launch of Hamnet online, in light of the Covid-19 crisis…
This post is part of the blog tour to celebrate the launch of Hamnet – check out some of the other fantastic blogs below for more exclusive content and reviews.
Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.