Hamnet is such an extraordinary book. But it’s difficult to explain why. First, let me say it is NOT a book about William Shakespeare. In fact, Shakespeare is a secondary, quite remote figure, mostly off following dreams of his own. [In fact, his actual name is not even mentioned in the book.] This IS an historical novel about his family. Both his childhood family, his wife Agnes’ (aka Anne Hathaway) childhood family, and the family the two of them build together. Awarded five stars on Goodreads.
This is one of those books with a non-linear time frame that works. Moving back and forth through time, the characters Maggie O’Farrell creates are all multi-dimensional, distinctive, and will no doubt remind you of people you know in your own life.
• John, Shakespeare’s father, is a once successful glove-maker who has fallen on hard times and has a deep, violent streak.
• Mary, Shakespeare’s mother, an opinionated woman who believes her son’s choice of wife is all wrong.
• Agnes, the wife — whose knowledge, behavior and interests make her an outcast in their town, chiefly because she refuses to follow the prescribed path imposed on women.
• Susanna, the older daughter, who’s eager for greater independence, though she loves her younger siblings intensely.
• Judith and Hamnet – twins who share the kind of intense closeness common between twins.
There are also an assortment of brothers and sisters in both Shakespeare’s family of origin and Agnes’. And also, Agnes’ stepmother, Joan. But I’ll leave you the joy of discovering her on your own.
I think what impressed me most with this novel is the way O’Farrell so powerfully and accurately describes the scattered thoughts that run through someone’s mind at moments of intense pleasure and intense grief. [Just wait until you read the story of how the plague got to London!]
But while I think this talented author does a beautiful job examining the drama inherent in the death of a child (NOT a spoiler since you learn about the coming death on page one), this is certainly not always an easy book to read. It’s truly very sad. You will come to love so many of these characters — only to then have to watch them suffer terribly. None more so than Agnes who is the real heroine of the book.
My description does not do this book justice. So, let me just say – DON’T miss this one! The language is poetic, the people complex and real, the story intense and action-packed. And I’ve never read a book that so perfectly expresses the obsessive and soul-wrenching nature of a mother’s grief for a lost child.
More about the author, Maggie O’Farrell.