Lead Review

  • Book: Hamnet
  • Location: Stratford-upon-Avon
  • Author: Maggie O'Farrell

Review Author: tripfiction



The book opens with:

In the 1580s a couple living in Henley Street, Stratford, had three children: Susanna, then Hamnett and Judith, who were twins.

The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged 11.

Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.

We are given the bare bones of the story in this short introduction and we know that the famous bard appears in the narrative. This allows the reader to just wallow in the storytelling. However, the bard remains nameless throughout, giving him a more shadowy presence. Had he been named, of course, he would probably have taken centre stage but this is not his story. This is the story of his wife, Agnes, who bears him his children and is the rock in the marriage, his enabler. ¬†With her tending to the home, he can expand his father’s business and start on the career for which he is known and venerated. The eponymous Hamnet of the title is their son and the glue between the couple, immortalised in the play that Shakespeare went on to write, namely Hamlet.

Agnes is a woman who has other-worldly gifts. She can sense the auras around others, she can somehow see into the future. She has her own kestrel. Others observe her and oftentimes do not feel comfortable around her. Her stepmother is a set piece character and runs her home with a rod of iron. It is not a happy place.

And it is to this woman, Agnes, that the Latin teacher – the Bard’s incarnation in his younger days – is drawn. His own Father is a fairly brutal man and Mary, his wife, is not favourably disposed towards her prospective daughter-in-law.

The story is richly told, of a marriage that is not overly made in heaven but one that works for the individuals at some level. The detail of their lives, their longings, their routines and inevitable losses unfold, but perhaps the overwhelming memory I have of this tale is of the people (and mainly of Agnes) who are very firmly set in the later 16th Century. It is a knife edge period, death is rampant. This is the period when the playhouses would periodically close because the bubonic plague would descend. London, with its dense population, was a dangerous and fundamentally unhealthy place. but the plague also travelled to more rural areas. This is a story of how humans interconnect and how a flea, that boarded a boat, attached to a human in Alexandria, caused mayhem and death around the world.

The novel is full of sumptuous descriptions of life and hardships, the detail of the countryside and interiors is exquisitely drawn. It is in fact quite painterly, as it lingers and sweeps from page to page with great literary brushstrokes. Agnes goes to enormous lengths to find the right medicinal herbs, the characters are caught up in their domestic chores – the scene is set and it all come to vibrant life in the hands of this hugely competent and lyrical writer. The novel is full of atmosphere and a real sense of era, imbued with the smells and bustle of the day.

A top read for 2020

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