REVIEW: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

There is something about a sumptuous historical novel you can get lost in; recently, I finished Hamnet and can’t wait to go back to Stratford

Hamnet is the first hardback I have read for years. I found a copy in a charity shop earlier in the year and coveted it alongside the other blue books that sat so prettily in a to be read pile alongside my bed, wondering when it was going to be read.

The novel is the story of Hamnet’s mother Agnes in the lead up to her child’s death. A “tragedie” of Shakespearean proportions but one where he is “one of it’s many players” – a man whose shadow haunts the house Agnes is left in, abutted to house of William Shakespeare’s family. We learn about is abusive father, the glove-maker but mainly we spend time with the women of the family. A feminist tale of what it was to be in the world of Shakespeare – the one that has been erased just he himself left that world behind. The details of their world, gaining that extra texture if you have been around Shakespeare’s house in Stratford – so many people in the world visit this place.

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford

The novel runs on two parallel timelines. We learn how Agnes (pronounced Annes) met Will, the presumptuous Latin master who teaches her brother. We also follow Hamnet as he tries to get help for his twin sister Judith who is very ill on their shared pallet. We learn too the history of how Will escapes his abusive father and why he ends up in London and at the playhouses. But just as the author obfuscates his name, we remain firmly with Agnes and her perspective. A feminist retelling that brings Agnes out of obscurity and recognises her skills but also her sacrifices. We even learn why she got only the second best bed! As an historical account it a satisfying depiction of all the details we try to grasp when we are compelled to visit the great playwright’s home.

I really loved the details in the novel, the liveness of detail of the people, particularly the internal perspectives of Agnes. I think a trip up to Stratford soon is needed to picture her in her herb garden and appreciate her story that has been lost in the myth of the man.

The ending of the book, where we feel the depths of pain of losing Hamnet and their very different reaction to the loss, is so moving. Writing back to the history of one of the world’s most famous men is an audacious act, and only a talent such as Maggie O’Farrell could have made it so real. She changes our perspective, turns our faces away from the stage.