A stunning new departure for Maggie O'Farrell's fiction, Hamnet is the heart-stopping story behind Shakespeare's most famous play.
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.
This was our November read for book club and I was so excited to read it after all of the hype it received after winning the Women's Prize for Fiction earlier this year.
I am glad to say that it totally lived up to the hype, I loved it. I won't lie, I wasn't 100% clear on what the story was about going in, other than the fact it was tied to Hamlet and Shakespeare somehow. What we are presented with is the captivating and breath taking story that O'Farrell has conjured from the facts she has gathered in her research Shakespeare and his family. I knew very little about this and of course this is a work of fiction and isn't word for word what occurred in Shakespeare's life but it is honestly a beautiful story that I think would even do Shakespeare himself proud.
I think the main thing I loved about the book was the writing. It is sensational! You are transported back in time to 16th century England and you can truly imagine the world in which O'Farrell describes. Not only is the writing beautifully atmospheric and descriptive, it also feels like true story telling. This was written in a way that the you could imagine the story being told through the ages around a camp fire, in your bedroom or late at night when the pub is about to close. It's hard to explain but this book was a real story and the writing was real story telling, which I think has nearly been lost through time.
And then of course, the writing lends itself to the amazing characters. Each character had a very strong presence and you could so clearly picture them at their daily tasks. I loved Agnes, who is definitely the heart and soul of this story. Such an enigmatic and strong female character who could inspire any woman or girl at any point in time. The sense of loss she experiences after the death of Hamnet is so palpable and raw and shows so many other layers to who she is.
This is a slight spoiler but something that comes clear very early on in the book (and is actually revealed in some book descriptions), the story centres around the time of the plague and I found it so interesting to read it at the same time as we experience this global pandemic. There is one particular chapter (the flea on the boat that is mentioned in the description) that explain how the plague spread and it is just fantastic! It is so visual and powerful and you could see it play out before your eyes.
I found the ending a little abrupt which is why I haven't given this a 10/10 but overall I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to everyone!
IN 3 WORDS/PHRASES:
“Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as ‘slipping away’ or ‘peaceful’ has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.”
Agnes, such a strong female and lead character. Just loved her! She felt so real but also loved the secret elements to her that came through at different times in the book.