Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Fiction Review: Hamnet

I was thrilled when one of my book groups chose Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell for our November selection. I've been hearing rave reviews of this novel since its 2020 release, so I've wanted to read it. And O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox got a rare unanimous approval from my other book group a few years ago, so I knew I liked her writing. Hamnet, which won the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2020, is historical fiction and was original and compelling.

Though the father of the title character is never directly named in the novel, it's clear that he is William Shakespeare. In 1580's England, at just eighteen years old, he meets Agnes, who is a unique woman, older than he, deemed by the others in the village to be wild and perhaps even magical. She's a healer who grows her own herbs and raises a falcon. Their families would never approve of their union, so Agnes gets pregnant so the two of them can marry. She gives birth to a daughter, Susanna, and later, to twins, Judith and Hamnet. The family lives in the narrow annex to his parents' house. His father, John, is a successful glove maker in the village, though his alcoholism and temper have caused him to become an outcast. He is clearly not happy working for his angry father, so Agnes encourages him to follow his dreams to London, even though it means long months away from his family. There, he soon gives up on his goal of expanding his father's glove business after he picks up several new accounts for playhouses and acting troupes in London and becomes enchanted with the life of an actor and playwright. And the rest, as they say, is history. As the novel opens, though, Judith is very sick with large buboes emerging in her neck and under her arms. Hamnet is the only one at home, and he desperately searches for someone in his family or the village physician, but no one is around. The story moves back and forth in time, between Agnes' past and the story of her childhood, how she met and married her husband, and their growing family and the terrifying present, as Judith's perilous situation become known.

This is a captivating bit of historical fiction, for its intricate look at life around 1600, its up-close examination of the horrors of the plague, and of course, its consideration of the background, childhood, and growing career of the world's most famous writer from a whole new perspective. But it's not his story, and oddly, in spite of the title, it's really not Hamnet's story, either. My book group all agreed that Agnes would have been a more accurate title for the novel! But, I suppose Hamnet lets you know who the father character is and leads to a satisfying conclusion. Everyone in my book group loved this novel, with lots of ratings of 8 and 9. Its an engrossing, original look at a fascinating time and the family of an intriguing historical figure.

320 pages, Knopf

Random House Audio

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  1. Thanks for your wonderful review of Hamnet. I just loved this book when I read it, and only wished I could read it again for the first time, it was so satisfying.

  2. I've been hearing really good things about this book from a number of bloggers. I'm glad you liked it.