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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: The Act Of Grief [Review]

From the day she learned about the early death of William Shakespeare’s son, Maggie O’Farrell was haunted by the connection between the boy’s name and the title of his father’s play Hamlet.

O’Farrell tried three times to write a narrative that sought to explain the connection. She wanted to re-imagine the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife and show how it was affected by the death of their son Hamnet. But the book refused to come together.

After publication of her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, Maggie O’Farrell took herself in hand. It was a case of either write the book now, or give up on it entirely, she told an audience at the Hay (Online) Festival in 2020.

I’m so glad she she succeeded at her fourth attempt because the resulting novel Hamnet is one of the most wonderful books I’ve read all year; a joy from start to finish.

Fresh Perspectives

I don’t normally care much for novels featuring, or inspired by, real people, especially ones as famous as William Shakespeare. But O’Farrell brings a completely fresh perspective; spinning magic from gossamer-thin historical facts to provide a wholly immersive tale of love and grief.

It’s not a novel about the boy Hamnet Shakespeare, despite the title. History in fact records little about the child beyond his baptism alongside his twin sister Judith, and his death in 1596 at the age of eleven. Nor is it about William Shakespeare – he’s never even named in the novel, referred to only obliquely as “the husband” or “the Latin tutor.” Instead what we have is a narrative that tracks the passionate relationship between two people and how this is tested by their son’s death.

Hamnet jiggles between two timelines, one beginning on the day Hamnet’s sister Judith becomes ill and takes to her bed, exhibiting all the signs of bubonic plague. The other timeline circles back to the beginning of the relationship some 15 years earlier between William, son of a moderately successful glover, and Agnes Hathaway (pronounced Ann-yis), eldest daughter of a wealthy sheep farmer.

Woman Of Nature

Agnes is a superb character, a free-spirited woman who feels most at home among the trees and plants of the forest near her home. She’s admired in the town for her skills as a healer and bee-keeper, but is also treated with some suspicion because she seems able to look into people’s souls just by pressing the muscle between thumb and forefinger.

It can be shut and opened like the beak of a bird and all the strength of the grip can be found there, all the power of the grasp. A person’s ability, their reach, their essence can be gleaned. All that they have held, kept, and all they long to grip is there in that place.

She’s a strong-minded woman who brings order to the home she shares with her in-laws, getting her own way about domestic routines and standing up to her rude, and often violent, father-in-law.

Responses to Grief

Towards her children she shows immense tenderness, shown most effectively in the night-time scene where she has to wash and lay out the body of her dead son. Every inch of his body reminds her of his past: the scar on his arm where he fell from a fence, his fingers calloused from gripping a quill and the small pits on his stomach from when he had pox.

She would wash the fever from him, draw it from his skin, if she could. … Hard to think she will never again see these arms, these knuckles, these shins, that thumbnail, that callus, this face, after this.

Her love for her husband is no less deep. It withstands his long absences in London. But is put to the severest test in the aftermath of their son’s death. She feels completely adrift from her former self, unmoored and lost.

There is a part of her that would like to wind up time, to gather it in like yarn. She would like to spin the wheel backwards, unmake the skein of Hamnet’s death.

Her husband retreats into “a silence that … expands and wraps itself around them.” He doesn’t cry, instead pacing their second floor “like someone trying to find their way back to a place for which they have lost the map.” He does eventually admit that he – like is his wife – is constantly looking for his boy in every street and every crowd. But then he disappears back to London. It is only when the play Hamlet is performed, does Agnes realise the full extent of her husband’s suffering and guilt.

Tangible World

Though the novel is set in the sixteenth century, O’Farrell’s portrayal of love and grief has a timeless quality. And yet she still manages to evoke the spirit of the age with with atmospheric details of the smells and daily routine of bread-making, pig feeding and clothes washing.

I loved the way Maggie O’Farrell made this world wholly tangible, giving me a sense that I was alongside Agnes as she taught the maid how to make soap or as she planted her new garden.

Yet it was also intangible. The decision not to name The Bard or Stratford, and to use the unfamiliar (but accurate) versions of the wife’s and son’s names, frees the narrative from the baggage of over-familiarity.

At times it felt that what I reading was somehow outside of any specific world. Agnes is even introduced as if she’s a character in a fable of a girl “who lived on the edge of a forest”. There’s a nod also to the world of the stage with gender-switching twins who love “to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other”.

Hamnet is a compelling and powerful novel filled with some richly atmospheric writing that reveals how people respond to grief and find their way through it. I’m still thinking about it and picturing some of the scenes weeks after I read the final page.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: End Notes

About the Book: Hamnet was published in the UK by Tinder Press in March 2020. It won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. Why this book didn’t get even on the longlist for the Booker Prize is a mystery.

About the Author: Maggie O’Farrell was born in Ireland and spent part of her childhood in Wales. She has worked as a journalist, both in Hong Kong and as the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. She also taught creative writing at the University of Warwick in Coventry and Goldsmith’s College in London.

Her debut novel After You’d Gone  won the Betty Trask Award. Her later novel The Hand That First Held Mine won the 2010 Costa Novel Award. She has twice been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award: for Instructions for a Heatwave in 2014 and This Must Be The Place in 2017.

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