Book review: Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

Reviewed by Barbara Kiernan

Four years after the death of his 11-year-old son, Hamnet, Shakespeare wrote the story of a tragic hero, Hamlet, (a variation of the name Hamnet), considered by many to be his greatest work. The artfully spun tale of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press, £8.99) is a fictional account of these events and the years leading up to them. The initial scene of the book is narrated from the perspective of a young Hamnet who has, while alone, discovered that his sister is very ill. With his sister’s life hanging in the balance but unable to find any adults to help him, his feelings of fear and isolation are tangible. From the very first page it feels as though O’Farrell wants us to share in these emotions; I was hooked in right from the start. 

Despite the name of the book, the central character is in fact Agnes, Hamnet’s mother. Agnes is portrayed as unconventional and wild, her close affinity to nature and understanding of the properties of plants allowing her to offer healing to those around her. She also has visions that enable her to foresee elements of the future, which give hints of foreboding and the darkness that is to come. The beautifully carved characters in this book, particularly that of Agnes, come to life through powerful and lyrical narration. As a reader, you really feel like you get to know them, reflecting O’Farrell’s great skill in characterisation.

Late-16th-century life is evoked through detailed descriptions of sights, sounds and smells. It is filled with curiosities such as the treatment of the plague by applying dried toad. The haunting vision of the plague doctors in the crow masks is also mentioned; and the fear that this must have struck into the heart of all who saw them. The chance cascade of events that contribute to the arrival of the plague at the Shakespeare household provide a ‘sliding doors’ view of the twists and turns of fate. O’Farrell has chosen to sidestep issues relating to the great Bard himself: he is never referred to by name, he has little speech in the book and his achievements are mainly to be gathered by oblique reference.

For me, the story is written with tremendous insight into the nature of love and family relationships. The idealised descriptions of Agnes’s immediate family ties are countered by the shady character of her Father-in-law and the unravelling of life through the dark turn of events. The irony that Agnes, despite all her skills as a healer is unable to save her own child, makes her agony feel even more raw and visceral. O’Farrell’s depiction of the characters as experiencing grief in different ways and not always meeting each other’s needs in traumatic situations also rings true. There is of course a present-day poignancy to considering life at the time of the plague. Likewise, seeing the Shakespeare family drawing on the arts and nature to help them through the troubled times, many of us can relate to that too.

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