Book Review

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell



On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

There has been a trend of late of retelling the Greek myths from the perspective of the women who were so often minor characters in the original tales.  To me, Hamnet picks up on this trend of allowing the lesser known characters – in this case a wife and her children – to step forward and take centre-stage, allowing them to give their side of the story.  It’s not a retelling of a myth, but Maggie O’Farrell’s fictionalisation of the marriage of Anne Hathaway – here Agnes, as she was referred to in her father’s will – to a glovemaker’s son and their lives and family is a fascinating one, made all the more so for being told predominantly from the perspective of Agnes and her children.

Agnes is a fantastic character, and I felt all of her joy, frustration, anger, and sorrow over the course of the novel.  I loved reading about how she and William first met, his fascination with her despite the rumours about her eccentricities, and their eventual marriage once she became pregnant.  Skilled in herb lore, many come to her with their aches and pains, and I loved her mischievous attitude as she occasionally uses this knowledge to the detriment of her cruel stepmother.  O’Farrell has imbued this character with a preternatural awareness that allows her to see and know more than she should, and I felt her frustration as her skills seem to fail her when she needs them most.  She does everything that she can to prevent the tragic events of the novel, but it’s not enough.

Agnes and William have three children, Susanna, and the twins, Hamnet and Judith.  I love the depiction of the twins – their special bond, the way they share everything, even though Hamnet, as a boy, is given more opportunities than Judith.  I love that they are presented as mirror images on one another – Hamnet right-handed, Judith left, but often moving in sync – and the similarity in their appearance that allows them to swap clothes and switch roles for a while.  Hamnet is a smart and yet easily distracted child, prone to flights of fancy.  He’s strong and robust, while Judith has always been a sickly child.  Their bond and friendship make the events of the novel that much harder to read as Judith falls ill, and while the reader knows the outcome, it’s a touching narrative that brings a tear to the eye.

William himself is present but not the focus of the novel.  The reader does see events from his perspective, but mostly through the eyes of others, and much of the narrative takes place while he is in London, ostensibly to expand his father’s glove making business before he finds his role as a playwright.  I liked that O’Farrell has depicted him as being an utterly normal individual – albeit one with a prodigious talent– with all the shortcomings that you might expect.  Agnes helps to engineer his move to London, having seen how unhappy he is in Stratford and within reach of his violent father, but never intended that he should leave her behind as he does.  Agnes is left quite literally holding the baby as the twins are born shortly after his departure, leaving her with three children to care for as well as having to cope with his parents and brothers.  Agnes isn’t perfect, but she’s by far the more sympathetic of the two.

There are some wonderful little snippets included in the novel, and I particularly liked O’Farrell’s depiction of how the plague came to England and the chance circumstances that led to such a tragedy.  It adds a wonderful little extra to the narrative, as you know what’s coming, but – much like Agnes – can’t do anything about it.  Hamnet is, of course, a fictionalisation of these events, and yet it’s clearly well researched and successfully evokes the Stratford-upon-Avon and London of the late 16th century.  It’s a fascinating account that captures the joys of love and family, the special bond between twins, and the tragedy of losing a child.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it Booker longlisted at the very least.

Hamnet will be published by Tinder Press on 31 March.  Many thanks to Georgina Moore for the early review copy.

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