The enduring love of Hamnet
May 6th 2021
Sometimes, there are books which win a prize, revel in its glory and gently fade into history with a sweeping bow. And other times, there are novels which quietly but steadfastly remain. They carry on, not just enduring but with the passing of time, growing stronger, setting roots and claiming their place in the canon of literary masterpieces.
Maggie O’Farrell’s extraordinary story, Hamnet, which won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, is one such title.
Recently released in paperback, it’s clung to the top spot with unwavering stubbornness. Its popularity seems unstoppable.
It seems that while no one was looking, Maggie O’Farrell has stepped into place as one of our greatest living writers.
So what’s it all about?
Hamnet tells the story of Shakespeare’s family, seen through the eyes of his wife, Agnes. A fascinating character, she’s of a shape-shifting, ungraspable, almost mystical nature and most certainly not one to be pinned down by her circumstances. Historians (especially the male ones) have often written off Shakespeare’s wife as a mistake of his youth and left it at that. But this novel reimagines her life, dragging through the centuries and bringing it dazzling into the light; filling in the sparse edges and making her gleam with colour and vivacity. It’s no wonder young William Shakespeare was besotted and risked everything to be with her.
Hamnet, Agnes’ and William (Shakespeare)’s son, is twin to Judith. When plague snatches him away, no one is at home – Agnes busy in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs, William working away in London. The family tumble headfirst into an insurmountable grief and when Agnes sees the image of her son in one of her husband’s plays, Hamlet, it’s a long journey she must go on to understanding.
Possibly the most important thing needs to be said next: this is not yet another novel that bows down to Shakespeare’s greatness – it’s the story of a family, torn apart by grief and struggling to hold together. It’s a story of choosing to accept one’s love in an unconventional match, of twins and their unbreakable connection and of a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria only to wreak havoc on England when it’s brought ashore.
Yes, it’s also the background to the play, Hamlet; but the genius of this author is that she can write a story that academics and Shakespearean aficionados will admire – but also one that will move to tears someone who has never read a word of the Bard in their life.
What’s the writing like?
Beautiful. So beautiful.
The way O’Farrell is able to step inside Agnes’ grief at losing her son is extraordinary:
“She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare. From habit, while she sits there near the fireplace, some part of her mind is tabulating them and their whereabouts: Judith, upstairs. Susanna, next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he? Here, she tries to tell herself. Cold and lifeless, on this board, right in front of you. Look, here, see.”
Immensely readable, the literary craft that binds together O’Farrell’s writing is near-perfect – in that it’s so unobtrusive. She’s not trying to be clever – she just is:
“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. Never take for granted that your children's hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”
Some readers may fear picking up a book that deals with grief. But while this novel deals with death, it’s somehow not a sad story – it’s empowering and strong – but yes, completely breath-taking.
To see what the fuss it about, grab it now from our Shop.
Vicki & The LoveMyRead Team x