25 January 2021

Review: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell book cover
I wish I'd read Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell last year. It would definitely have ended up on my Top 5 Books of 2020 list.

Hamnet is an historical fiction novel about the death of Shakespeare's 11 year old son Hamnet in 1596, and in particular how his wife Agnes and family deal with the loss. Shakespeare is never named in the book (not once!) and while the book is about his family, it's not all about him.

The reader is introduced to a young Agnes, learning about her mother and the gifts she passed on to her daughter before her passing.
"Agnes learnt to be agile, quick. She learnt the advantages of invisibility, how to pass through a room without drawing notice. She learnt that what is hidden within a person may be brought forth if, say, a sprinkling of bladderwort were to find its way into that person's cup. She learnt that creepers disentangled from an oak trunk, brushed against bed linen, will ensure no sleep for whoever lies there." Page 53
Later on, after the death of her mother, we're given an insight into Agnes' teenage years living with her stepmother Joan.
"Joan is not an idle woman. She has six children (eight, if you count the half-mad step-girl and the idiot brother she was forced to take on when she married). She is a widow, as of last year. The farmer left the farm to Bartholomew, of course, but the terms of the will allow her, Joan to remain living here to oversee matters. And oversee she will. She doesn't trust that Bartholomew to look further than his nose. She has told him she will continue to run the kitchen, the yard and the orchard, with the help of the girls. Bartholomew will see to the flocks and the fields, with the help of the boys, and she will walk the land with him, once a week, to make sure all is as it should be. So Joan has the chickens and pigs to see to, the cows to milk, food for the men, the farmhand and the shepherd to prepare, day in, day out. Two younger boys to educate as best she can - and Lord knows they will need an education as the farm will not be coming down to them, more's the pity. She has three daughters (four, if you count the other, which Joan usually doesn't) to keep under her eye. She has bread to bake, cattle to milk, berries to bottle, beer to brew, clothes to mend, stockings to darn, floors to scrub, dishes to wash, beds to air, carpets to beat, windows to polish, tables to scour, hair to brush, passages to sweep, steps to scrub.
Forgive her, then, if it is almost three months before she notices that a number of monthly cloths are missing from the wash." Page 84
Agnes meets and falls in love with the tutor (William) and neither family is pleased with the match. Leaving her childhood home and her brother Bartholomew, Agnes moves in with her husband's glove-making family and gives birth to a daughter and later on to twins, Judith and Hamnet.

I adored the study of relationships in this book, the complex marriage between Agnes and her husband and the strained family dynamics; relatable even centuries later. A highlight is Agnes' relationship with her mother-in-law Mary. Here's an example I just have to share with you.
"Whatever differences Agnes and Mary have - and there are many, of course, living at such close quarters, with so much to do, so many children, so many mouths, the meals to cook and the clothes to wash and mend, the men to watch and assess, soothe and guide - dissolve in the face of tasks. The two of them can gripe and prickle and rub each other up the wrong way; they can argue and bicker and sigh; they can throw into the pig-pen food the other has cooked because it is too salted or not milled finely enough or too spiced; they can raise an eyebrow at each other's darning or stitching or embroidery. In a time such as this, however, they can operate like two hands of the same person." Page 130
You can tell by the quotes I've shared that I was absolutely blown away by the evocative writing in Hamnet, and am thrilled to discover a new-to-me author in Maggie O'Farrell. What a talent! Hamnet was published in March last year and went on to win the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2020, and deservedly so in my opinion.

Those who have read the book will understand what I mean when I say my absolute favourite part of the novel was the story about the plague-infested flea and the detailed journey it took to reach Stratford. It was fascinating, gripping and perfectly written.

You don't need to know anything about Shakespeare to enjoy this novel. It's essentially the story of a 16th century family and the way in which they cope with life's choices and challenges. It's beautifully written and I know it's only January, but I'm certain Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell is going to be one of my top 5 favourite reads of 2021.

Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Yes, this not only ended up on my best of list for 2020, it was my #1 favorite. Such an amazing book!

    1. Wow, your number #1 favourite of 2020? High praise indeed! I think it's definitely in the running for a top spot on my 2021 list. It's only January, so it's hard to know what the next 11 months will bring, hopefully more brilliant reads like this one. Fingers crossed.

  2. Hamnet is a fine, fine book. And you're not alone in calling it one of the top 10 books of 2020. Glad your entry for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge turned out so well. :-) Happy reading!
    ~ Lex (lexlingua.co)

    1. Thanks Lex, fingers crossed it's the start of another brilliant year of reading for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. I can see from your blog you're doing it too, so good luck!

  3. Such a magnificent novel. It did make my top reads for 2020. I'm so glad you've read it now and yes, the flea! She is an amazing story weaver.

    1. She really is, isn't she? And I just loved the flea! What a brilliant novel and a great way to start the year. The bar for historical fiction is set pretty high now though.


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