Book Review – Hamnet

As we approached the end of June, I made it to more than half way on my already increased GoodReads challenge, and one of my personal challenges every year is to make my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist (or longlist, where possible). Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell marks book three that I’ve managed so far, and although I thought earlier in the year that A Thousand Ships would be my hard preference to win, it’s now hard to call.

William Shakespeare left his mark on English literature, but not much of one on history. Over the years, questions – and outright slander – have surrounded his sexuality, his personality, and his family since the time he was alive. The further we’ve got away in time from the life of the Shakespeare family, the harder it is to trace any truth in the rumors, leaving the whole history, especially that of his wife, available for critique.

Over the years, Agnes – or Anne, there is a question mark over her very name – has been assaulted in various formats, from plays to books, with all sorts of attacks; that she was a witch, that her husband hated her, that she conned him into marriage via pregnancy, that because of her being older she betwitched him, that the couple were separated in all but name… all this based on one line from his will, leaving her ‘the second best bed’. This has been read far too much into, as it’s a simple historical fact that the best bed was traditionally for guests, and the couple’s original bed would have been the marital bed.

Anges and William Shakespeare had three children, two daughters, Susannah and Judith, and their only son. Hamnet Shakespeare was only eleven when he died of what is suspected to have been an outburst of plague in Stratford, and it is this event that is the center of our story. The book is in two parts; part one alternating between the historical ‘past’ and historical ‘present’, and part two being a single long chapter in the ‘present’. These parts are so different, I’ll talk about them separately.

Part I
Part one is told from the alternating time points, switching between Anges and ‘The Latin Tutor’ meeting, and then switching back to historical present with mostly alternating chapters. We see them fall in love, see the beauty of Agnes and her free spirit, and then we see their children; how they have grown from dreams and love into young adults. Susannah, Judith and Hamnet are living with their mother in a separate extension of their grandparents home while their father lives most of his time in London, working with his men on plays and performances, travelling with them to inns, and even to the royal court. But then Judith becomes ill. Each chapter we get of the budding romance is beautiful but painful too, waiting for more news of Judith, even if you know how the story will turn. It’s no secret that Hamnet will die. But it’s horrible, and beautiful, and painful.

Part II
After Hamnet’s death, part two is one full length chapter, that on auduibook length is longer than three hours, with little asterisks breaking up different section, different perspectives. We see mostly Agnes, so wrapped in her grief she can hardly breathe. We see Susannah in her frustration as she grows older, copying her grandmother, wanting her mother to cope – her own form of grief. We see small snippets of The Tutor himself. As time progresses, Agnes’s husband becomes more successful, and buys them the finest house in town, finally away from his toxic parents. But she is hollowed. Harrowed. Horrified, unable to process what she’s grabbling with.

I was utterly in awe of how the display of a grieving mother was realistic; it didn’t show grief disappearing after the space of a short time, easing and finally disappearing. It shows a woman in the utter clutches of desperation, of the love for her child. Trying to find anything that might possibly help. At the point she resorts to tying the dried toad she earlier rejected to Hamnet’s stomach, I sobbed.

I haven’t lost a living child. But I have lost two babies, two wanted and desperately loved babies, and I remember the horrified desperate feeling of wanting to do anything, anything, to keep those babies safe. When I lost both pregnancies within the space of a year, I was a mess. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think. I was out of my mind with grief – there’s no other way to put it. And I felt that with this book, on so many of the pages. The joy of the early years faded, dimmed, muted beneath the blanket of grief from losing their beloved child.

Feelings hit me hard, even fictional ones, from books, music and films, but rarely has a book hit me quite as hard as this. And yet it it was also one of the most beautifully written pieces of fiction I have ever encountered. Stunning in both its historical description and emotional power, I fell in love with the book, was devastated when it finished and need something just as incredible in my life again soon. The balance between emotive power and pure skill was just sheer brilliance.

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