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 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.
Oh my gosh, this book. This book.
So that’s not the greatest opening to a blog post but seriously, you’re lucky to be getting more than just a succession of random letters typed onto the screen. It’s taken a good week since finishing Maggie O’Farrell’s reimagining of the life of Shakespeare’s son for me to be able to form even vaguely coherent sentences about it.
Hamnet is one of those books that lingers in the mind both during and after the process of reading it. It is simultaneously lyrical imagining of life in sixteenth-century Stratford and a profoundly moving depiction of a family being built, torn apart, and rebuilt from within.
I was blown away by Maggie O’Farrell’s vivid depictions of the life and characters that populate Agnes, Judith, and Hamnet’s world. The streets of both Stratford and London are teeming with life, the world vividly recreated and leaping from the pages. From the first few pages, in which the reader follows young Hamnet as he desperately searches for help for the ailing Judith, to the closing scenes amidst the crowds of Shakespeare’s famous Globe, I was utterly absorbed into the sights and sounds of the world that O’Farrell has created.
I was also completely drawn in by the characters themselves. Hamnet himself is a mixture of child-like innocence and precocious intelligence, a picture of a boy moving from childhood to adolescence. But, for me at least, the real star of the show is Hamnet’s mother Agnes. Perceptive and unconventional, the sheer force of Agnes’ personality leapt off the page. Possessing an emotional intelligence that belies her lack of formal education, Agnes’ determination to forge a family for herself, her desperate struggle to keep both her twins alive and her grief at her failure to do so, is the driving force of the novel.
One of my favourite things about the book (because, as you can probably tell already, I utterly adored it) is the way in which O’Farrell has captured the web of complex intrigues that lie beneath the surface of every family. The reason why a son tenses when his father walks into a room, the ways in which a quiet influence can be exerted on household decisions, the undercurrents of family life that spin around all of us. By the end of the novel, I felt as if I’d been allowed to step through time and into this one household to stand by, observing, as daily life played out around me.
This absorption means that Hamnet is a quiet novel. It relies upon the stark contrast between the small interactions that make up life’s daily rhythms and the sudden, devastating ways in which these can be ripped apart without a moment’s notice for its impact. It is a drama played out in small doses, where a decision made one year has repercussions several months or even years further down the line. I imagine some readers may find the pace a little too sedate but, for me, the gentle recreation of family life in the first two-thirds of the novel is what makes the sudden dive into all-consuming, furious grief in the latter third so powerfully affecting.
This might be the first of Maggie O’Farrell’s books that I’ve read but, on the basis of this powerfully imagined novel, it certainly won’t be the last. Hamnet is a beautifully imagined exploration of family, a tender examination of a life cut tragically short, and a profound testimony to the healing power of love and creativity. It’s a well-deserved contender for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and, if you haven’t already read it, I would highly recommend picking it up.
Don’t forget that although your local bookshop might be closed at the moment, you can also support your local indie bookshops by ordering from them online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop (where I got my gorgeous indie-exclusive signed copy of Hamnet from) The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, and Berts Books.
Hamnet is one of a number of fantastic titles shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. You can find out more about the prize, and about all of the shortlisted titles, on the Women’s Prize website.