Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell #BookReview # BlogTour

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, HAMNET is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

It's my pleasure to be hosting the blog tour for Hamnet today. Many thanks to Maggie O'Farrell, Tinder Press and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me and for my advance digital copy of the novel.

In these strange, uncertain days, it feels oddly fitting to be reviewing a book which is built around a death, particularly one due to a devastating worldwide disease where the victims are largely discussed in terms of statistics rather than as human beings whose individual loss was felt greatly by those who loved them. It's a sobering thought at a time when our news outlets are filled with the latest, awful daily figures of those who have sadly lost their lives to Covid-19.
In Hamnet, the disease in question is the bubonic plague and its young victim is the eponymous son of Shakespeare. Little is actually known about the boy, other than he was the twin brother of Judith and died at eleven years of age in 1596. This fictionalised account of his young life isn't about his father; in fact, Shakespeare's name isn't mentioned here - he's the tutor, the husband, the father and spends much of the book in London, away from his family in Stratford.
However, the dual narrative storyline does mean we witness his courtship of Agnes (although known by most as Anne Hathaway, she was named as Agnes in her father's will). There are conflicting opinions about their marriage but here Maggie O'Farrell describes it as a union of love, although the long-term impact of Hamnet's death on their relationship isn't explored. If the novel isn't really about Shakespeare, the same can't be said of Agnes and for the first part of the novel, I found the chapters featuring her as a younger woman to be the most interesting. As the book's blurb explains, she is a woman absent from history and so I don't know how much of the Agnes in these pages is an accurate representation but it is an intriguing one. She is described as a semi-wild woman, with almost witch-like abilities to use herbs to heal and to be able to predict a person's future through clutching their hands. Brought up by a stepmother who fears and resents her presence, her relationship with Shakespeare brings her the love she has been craving since her mother's death.
In comparison, I wasn't quite as gripped by the chapters leading up to Hamnet's death, although that's not to suggest I didn't enjoy them. Perhaps it was the sad inevitability of his fate or the slower pace leading to his last moments which meant I felt more detached from these parts of the book. However, after he dies, the novel really came to life for me and it was at this point I experienced the emotional pull that I'd been missing. The touching examination of a family grieving is so beautifully perceptive and though centred on Agnes, the poignant reaction of other families members is portrayed with an insightful sensitivity - there's a scene where Judith asks her mother what she should be described as now her twin is dead which is absolutely heartbreaking,
'If you were a wife, Judith continues, and your husband dies, then you are a widow. And if its parents die, a child becomes an orphan. But what is the word for what I am?' 
Hamnet may be historical fiction but it turns out to be a timely and emotive exploration of love and grief - this penetrating drama profoundly reminds us of the universal bittersweet experience of loss.

Hamnet is published by Tinder Press, purchasing links can be found here or if possible please order from one of our wonderful independent bookstores.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

Maggie O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times no. 1 bestselling memoir I AM, I AM, I AM, and eight novels: AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, and HAMNET. She lives in Edinburgh.


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