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Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

“What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any time, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe.” The narrative of Hamnet follows two stories: when Agnes (or Ann) and Shakespeare first meet, fall in love, marry and have three children (Susanna, Hamnet and Judith); and the few days running up to the sudden death of their only son, Hamnet. At this point, the stories converge and move forward as one, capturing how the family cope with the death of a child.

While the book is named after the son, this historical fiction is really about Agnes, about her life and how she grieves for her eleven-year-old boy after he dies from pestilence. Her feelings of denial, guilt, anger and loss are laid bare, yet O’Farrell manages to capture these emotions and present them in wonderful lyrical descriptions (“She is someone who weeps if she cannot find a shoe or overboils the soup or trips over a pot. Small things undo her”), and metaphors (“She… constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children… And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite”).

Throughout the book, O’Farrell is a master of observation of the small and ordinary things that exist in our lives (“the pink kirtle of a woman leading a nag along the road”, honey “slow as sap, orange-gold, scented with the sharp tang of thyme and the floral sweetness of lavender”, and a breeze slipping "... invisibly, insistently through the streets... plays with the tops of trees... shivers inside the church bell... ruffles the feathers of the lonely owl"). Her words bring an air of the magical, the supernatural – a perfect companion for the protagonist Agnes, a reputed enchantress "collecting plants to make dubious potions".

I question the need for a lengthy narration about a flea which brings the pestilence (or bubonic plague) from Alexandria via Venice to Stratford. While it makes the point that fate – and death – are beyond the control of our ordinary lives, I’m not convinced this wonderful book benefits from such an indulgent deviation.

If you like historical fiction or anything to do with Shakespeare, then you will enjoy this book. I think fans of Hilary Mantel will particularly enjoy Hamnet, not just because it shares the same century as the Wolf Hall trilogy (or the supernatural air of Beyond Black), but also because of the lyrical language that sings from the page and swirls around the reader’s mind.

There is not much known about the true events leading up to Hamnet’s premature death, allowing the author to use her imagination and create her own story about the love between the most famous writer on earth and his wife, the love they had for their children and how they coped with the grief of losing a son. As O’Farrell herself alludes to in an abridged quote from Hamlet, “I am dead: Thou livest; … draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story.”



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