Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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As an avid historical fiction fan, Maggie O’Farrell’s, Hamnet, leap-frogged its way to the top of my never-ending reading list immediately on publication.

O’Farrell uses the gaps and unknowns of undocumented history to create an eloquent, emotional, and interesting novel. It is mainly told from the perspective of Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes (Anne) Hathaway, and is a story of their marriage and loss of their son, Hamnet. This in itself, highlights the two main reasons why I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  Firstly, the writer touches upon such delicate subjects with great sensitivity, and crafts the narrative in a highly emotive way. O’Farrell’s beautiful writing is utterly compelling, and you really experience the same emotions as the characters. Loss, grief, marriage, and parenthood are topics that most readers will be able to empathise with in some way. Given the times that we live in today, it is difficult to also not draw comparison between the plague sweeping across Britain in Hamnet, to the current pandemic sweeping across the world. Using storylines that are relatable and run adjacent to the everyday lives of many is important, as, given that historical novels are not everyone’s cup of tea, by touching on subjects that readers can identify with, and emotionally connect to, made for clever and connective writing.

Secondly, I thought that O’Farrell struck an excellent balance between writing fiction around fact. Given the certain ‘mystery’ around Shakespeare’s personal life, and in particular, his wife and children, O’Farrell had a lot of space in which she could have really run with artistic licence. However, in what I feel was quite the opposite way, O’Farrell instead composed a piece of literature that could easily be believable by cleverly interlinking documented events with creative prose. For example, O’Farrell explores the possibility that Agnes was a witch without ever expressly stating this is the case, and instead subtly references things such as her interest in herbs, against a backdrop of the criminality of Witchcraft during that era. This demonstrated a certain integrity to the author, and made me enjoy the story even more, especially as a self-confessed history-bod! Even if I was not interested in history, the position that O’Farrell takes in adding fictional flesh to the bare historical bones would have certainly created an interest in Shakespearean England, and this, to me, speaks volumes about the quality of Hamnet.

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