Before I can say anything about the content of this book, just look at how gorgeous it is! I know the old saying, “never judge a book by its cover”, but I have been making a conscious effort to be more aware of book design this year and this is the perfect example of how design can really push a book ahead. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell was one of my most anticipated reads of the year and it did not disappoint. My current reads are turning into a five/four-star streak but this, the one which started it, has stayed with me far beyond the final page.
“One of our greatest living novelists resurrects the short life of Hamnet Shakespeare, in this lyrically written and emotionally devastating account of the Bard’s only son. Utterly immersive and convincing, Hamnet is a poignant period tale that not only shines a light on an oft-neglected area of Shakespearean history but speaks to wider themes of grief and loss with impeccable poise and unflinching honesty.” – Waterstones synopsis
Prior to the release of Hamnet I had seen Maggie O’Farrell’s name everywhere, particularly her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death as it is often stocked in the Wellcome and Science Museum bookshops. However, this is the first of her novels I’ve read in completion let alone pre-ordered and started as soon as it arrived. The reason for that can easily be explained by the plot. Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play, I know it may sound typical, but I did write a 5,000-word Masters essay specifically focusing on the publication of Shakespeare’s plays in their original form. The topic I landed on was an in-depth study of changes to the characters in Hamlet causes by lines deleted in performance but printed, and marked as those deleted, in 1595 as Q9. Following this I was also lucky enough to catch the new musical & Juliet prior to lockdown, just a few weeks before Hamnet was published, which while focusing on Romeo and Juliet features William and Anne as characters and Anne, portrayed by Cassidy Johnson, completely stole the show for me. That is all for another review. However, all of this to say that whilst I was immediately attracted by the focus on my favourite play the biographical, and historical fiction, angle entirely convinced me to pick it up.
Well, this proved to be the perfect place to start. Maggie O’Farrell’s writing style is beautiful. This is the first time in a while that a writing style has really struck me as exceptional as I’m typically drawn to plot or characters first. I was initially worried about adjusting to an overly lyrical or flowery writing style, but I experienced a clear and crisp style simultaneously immersive and atmospheric. I’m not one to imagine everything I’m reading, such as the layout of a house or room for example, but this read took me entirely by surprise as this is all I could do is see the setting and the characters around me.
I love this book specifically for its ability to let you see and feel the construction that has gone into it. As a work of historical fiction, it is actually far more playful than I think the synopsis alone gives it credit for. Maggie O’Farrell continually sticks to the history but playfully adjusts the angle and commits to it. For example, the now historically standardised idea that Anne Hathaway, Agnes in Hamnet, was too old for William Shakespeare is subtly adjusted into discussions of William being too young for Agnes. Rather than actively avoiding it, she also cleverly omits not only the Shakespeare surname completely but also William’s name entirely for most of the book. The wider array of characters, such as their extended families, and settings primarily serve to broaden the historical setting of glove makers, fleas journeying across the sea and the opinions of gossiping women. It is fascinating to delve into a book which encapsulates the detail and atmosphere of historical fiction whilst playfully creating captivating characters entirely Maggie O’Farrell’s own.
There are three scenes, especially the ending, which have struck a chord with me and remained stuck in my mind for their harrowing brilliance, creepiness and heart-breaking honesty. Alongside these individual examples, I enjoyed the structure effortlessly switching between Agnes and William’s early relationship and their later married life to give a thorough exploration of their relationship and Agnes’ individuality. Whereas this is predominately a character driven novel the action of their lives, relationships and the setting moved constantly and had me turning the pages until the very last one. This was certainly a weepy and emotional read for me, but I was initially worried that the topic of family grief would perhaps become too much and I was pleasantly surprised that the book itself never feels like it is too steeped in its own sadness, it leaves that to the reader.
Overall, I simply loved both the book itself but also the experience of reading every page. With gorgeous writing, engaging construction and awesome scenes Maggie O’Farrell has created something truly special. Speaking of which, Hamnet is on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the shortlist is going to be announced tomorrow! I’m so excited to see how much this book is going to achieve.
Tinder Press, an Hachette UK imprint specialising in literary fiction, published Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell on the 31st March 2020.
I purchased this copy with my own money. The publisher, author, or retailer are not involved in the publication of this review. No links in this review are sponsored, or affiliate links and I do not make any profit from this review.
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