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Genre Literary, Historical
Format Hardback (gift from family)
Other Formats Available Paperback, ebook, audiobook
Publication Date March 2020
Length 384 pages
Content Warnings Grief, child death, birthing, abuse by parent/grandparent (physical & emotional)
What It’s About
In a modest Stratford house, in the late sixteenth century, a boy is searching for help. His twin sister, Judith, has fallen ill, and he has no idea what to do. His mother will come, carrying kind words, herbal remedies, and fear in her heart.
The plague should not be here – the playhouses in London may close, but here in Stratford, far away, they are supposed to be safe. Heedlessly, the sickness has arrived from another world, crept into their home, and waits with insatiable power to shatter a family beyond recognition.
Like most historical fiction, Hamnet is written with broad strokes that cover several decades and two generations. Yet it still managed to feel like an acutely intimate portrayal of a family in all of its beauty and pain.
I knew from reading reviews that the book would not be ‘about’ Shakespeare, and I’ll admit that I felt a little uneasy about this absence. How could you write a book, set in the sixteenth century, in Shakespeare’s lifetime, in his very home, and then proceed to talk about something else?!
Ultimately, though, I liked the decision not to focus on Shakespeare – O’Farrell does not even name him in the novel, referring only to the ‘husband’ and ‘father’. In doing so, the author manages to strip away centuries of accumulated adoration to write about a man, rather than a myth.
The novel also challenges the hierarchical assumptions that put Shakespeare himself at the centre of narratives. Instead, it is attentive to other members of the family and how they are affected by his work, his unpredictable ebb and flow of absence and presence.
Grief is at the core of this book. I cried several times while reading, so a word of warning if you are feeling sensitive. The fact that history has already written what is going to happen makes it no less devastating when it does.
I loved how O’Farrell foregrounds sibling relationships, to the extent that the book has been published as Hamnet and Judith in some countries. These relationships are so formative but often neglected in literature. The moving portrayal of sibling bonds almost made me want to share the book with my younger brother (not that he would like it, he only reads non-fiction!)
Throughout Hamnet, the author shows that this family is made extraordinary by so much more than the eminent playwright. In fact, Agnes soon emerges as the most fascinating character. Strange and otherworldly, she gave me the sense that the story is not just an experimental reimagining, but a correction – Agnes was really at the centre all along.
“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?”~ Maggie O’Farrell, ‘Hamnet’
Diversity and Representation
I enjoyed the feminist energy at the heart of Hamnet. By focalising the women at home rather than the playwright making history in London, the novel gives these women what they have so long been denied – a story of their own.
Beyond the Book
In Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell emphasises how the domestic sphere is often bypassed by history. The care with which Agnes tends her plants, the depths of unwritten knowledge behind her healing abilities, and her fierce protectiveness of her children all deserve the same merit as her husband’s achievements.
At the same time, though, this positive portrayal of domesticity is undermined by the unequal opportunities available for different characters in the story. For example, Hamnet attends a grammar school, while his sister is expected to stay at home and help with chores.
This difference in their education immediately made me think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which she imagines how Shakespeare’s sister would be thwarted if she tried to fulfil her creative ambitions. Does the celebration of domestic power unwittingly play into the idea that women are better suited for domesticity?
If you’re reading Hamnet as a book club pick or just looking to ponder the story in a little more depth, these questions should help get you started:
1. With its focus on grief, the novel can be gut-wrenching at times. Which books have made you cry or get particularly emotional?
2. Did you enjoy the positive portrayal of domestic power in the novel? Or did you think it potentially played into unhelpful stereotypes?
3. I loved Hamnet and Judith’s sibling bond that forms a focal point of the story, but there are also three-dimensional, deeply explored relationships between other characters – Agnes and her mother-in-law, Susanna and her parents, and the fraught love between husband and wife, to name a few. What relationships between characters in Hamnet did you find most complex and intriguing?
“…you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.”~ Maggie O’Farrell, ‘Hamnet’
You want to be turned into an emotional wreck by a devastating historical novel.
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Have you read Hamnet? What are the books that have made you cry? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!