Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Book-HamnetA Guest Review by Mary Le Bon

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a tender and haunting portrayal of the emotional trauma Shakespeare’s family suffered when his son, Hamnet, died suddenly aged eleven. O’Farrell reveals that their all-encompassing grief is the background to Shakespeare’s writing of the play ‘Hamlet’ four years later (as ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Hamnet’ are different versions of the same name).    

Set mainly in Henley Street, Stratford, in summer 1596, the book opens with the young boy’s desperate search for his mother (who is tending her bees and her garden a mile away) or his grandmother, or his father (who is in London) or anyone who would know how to help his twin sister, Judith, who is ill. O’Farrell vividly describes the home, then the town, through the eyes of this child. As he peers into each room, he becomes distracted, then recalls his mission and sets off to get the doctor, with a child’s certainty that on his return his mother will be there, and all will be well.

Maggie O’Farrell revealed in her Hay Festival interview that Shakespeare’s wife (known to most of us as Ann Hathaway) was named Agnes on her birth certificate. So she refers to her as Agnes in the book. Much of the story is told through the experience of Agnes – a country girl whose mother was believed to have come out of the forest. Agnes is regarded as eccentric, and rumours abound of her strange powers, her ramblings to gather herbs, her bee-keeping and her kestrel. The sick of the town come and knock on her door requesting home-made cures for their ailments.

Shakespeare is referred to throughout as ‘the tutor’, ‘the glover’s son’, ‘the husband’, ‘the absent father’ which I did find strange at first, but it allows the reader to forget his fame and to see him as a son, a husband and a father, without prejudice.

I found it hard to adjust to the style of writing, as the story is told in the present tense, but this does create tension and immediacy. An omniscient narrator comments on the characters and their actions, building up a picture of relationships in the town. In the following extract, Susanna (Hamnet’s older sister) observes how people react to her grandmother:

Mary has stopped to talk to a woman of the parish… but Susanna isn’t fooled. She knows the woman doesn’t like her grandmother; the woman can’t stop looking around, over her shoulder, wondering if anyone is observing her in conversation with the wife of the disgraced glover… Susanna sees how her grandmother plants herself in the woman’s way, so that she cannot get past, cannot avoid talking to them. She sees all of this. The knowledge of it burns the inside of her head, leaving black scorch marks.

There are very short sentences, sometimes single words, which are very effective in conveying the emptiness of Agnes’ grief, as she constantly searches for her son. She worries for her daughter too:

What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin but is no longer a twin?

Her mother, dipping a folded, doubled wick into heated tallow, pauses but doesn’t turn around.

If you were a wife, Judith continues, and your husband dies, then you are a widow… But what is the word for what I am?

I don’t know, her mother says.

Judith watches the liquid slide off the ends of the wicks, into the bowl below.

Maybe there isn’t one, she suggests.

Maybe not, says her mother.

This is a book that focuses on family relationships: the impact of a child’s death on a husband and wife, and the symbiotic relationship between twins. Although this is not light-hearted holiday reading, I would recommend it for the insight it gives into Shakespeare’s family life, the depth of character and O’Farrell’s sensitive treatment of the tragedy of loss.

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