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 glove maker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.
‘Hamnet’ is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read. Maggie O’Farrell never disappoints me and this new novel, whilst being a slight change from her usual works, is simply outstanding. This is going to be one of those reviews that takes me forever to write because I enjoyed the book so much and want to do it justice.
At first glance you may think this is a tale about Shakespeare. It’s not. In fact, William Shakespeare is very much a background character, this is the story of his wife Agnes and his son, Hamnet. This is a story of motherhood, of family, of grief. Maggie O’Farrell doesn’t even name him in the book and instead uses the words like ‘father’ or ‘husband’ when he enters a scene. A very clever way of making a book about Shakespeare very much not about Shakespeare at all. Leaving him unnamed makes the focus all about Hamnet and Agnes.
‘Hamnet’ takes place over two interweaving timelines. We meet Agnes as a young woman, we witness her first meeting with her brother’s tutor (Shakespeare) and we see a relationship blossom. Agnes is not a conventional girl, from a well-off family she prefers to spend her time in the forest and with her kestrel. She’s a mysterious, head strong creature that instantly intrigues readers, as well as her future husband. We also get to see where their relationship ends up, as the timeline also concentrates on the period fifteen years later. We meet Agnes as a mother and we meet Hamnet, as he desperately tries to find help for ill twin sister. A dual timeline works really well for this novel and it helps create a superb portrait of how marriage and motherhood can change over time.
The writing is stunning. Absolutely stunning. About half way through something happens and you are left bereft, your heart shredded and that’s down to the power of Maggie O’Farrell’s words. Every single line is a work of art and many passages I re-read because they were so exquisite. I can go on and on about how beautiful it is, all I can do is implore you read it. It will blow you away.
Powerful, beautiful, hauntingly and uniquely wonderful – ‘Hamnet’ is an extraordinary book that moved me and took my breath away. It’s a read that will stay with me forever and it’s a read that everyone must experience.
‘Hamnet’ is out now in hardback, published by Tinder Press. A big thank you to Tinder Press and Midas PR for my review copy and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for my blog tour invite. Make you you check out all the other wonderful bloggers taking part.