Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Review by Arja Salafranca
Hamnet is acclaimed Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell’s lyrical imagining of the life of Anne Hathaway, the woman William Shakespeare married in 1582. Hamnet was their son, who died at the age of eleven, possibly from the plague. Four years later Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. In the sixteenth century, Hamlet and Hamnet were considered the same name.
O’Farrell was interviewed at the Hay Book Fest earlier this year, where she explained that she named Anne’s character Agnes in the book because it is closer to the French form of the name. The author breathes life into the tale of Shakespeare’s wife, about whom extraordinarily little is known, and this book is her story, and that of her children, rather than a story about Shakespeare. It opens with Hamnet running through the household he shares with his mother, his twin sister Judith and older sister Susanna and adjoining that of his paternal grandparents. His twin? sister has taken sick; the plague rages.
Agnes is a medicine woman, attuned to the healing properties of plants, who also dispenses remedies to those who come knocking at her door. When she sees her daughter sick with fever, she uses all her knowledge and spirit of will to heal her child. But so consumed is she with saving one child, that she fails to notice Hamnet taking ill.
Excerpt: He writes them letters, which their mother reads, painstakingly, her finger moving from word to word, her lips forming the sounds. Their mother can read a little but is only able to write in a rudimentary fashion.
The story is interwoven with the past, related in alternate chapters for the two time periods. We see the twenty-six-year old Agnes falling in love with Shakespeare who is just eighteen. He is never named although strongly drawn. He is also away in London for much of the time, writing and acting in plays. Agnes and her children see him on a handful of occasions in a year. Questions of what it means to love a man who is so often away for long periods, earning money, float beneath the themes of Hamnet.
Excerpt: Agnes is not the person she used to be. She is utterly changed. She can recall being someone who felt sure of life and what it would hold for her; she had her children, she had her husband, she had her home. She was able to peer into people and see what would befall them. She knew how to help them. Her feet moved over the earth with confidence and grace. This person is now lost to her for ever. She is someone adrift in her life, who doesn’t recognise it. She is unmoored, at a loss. She is someone who weeps if she cannot find a shoe or overboils the soup or trips over a pot. Small things undo her. Nothing is certain any more.
The writing is lyrical and richly sensuous: the smell of apples permeates Agnes’s first kiss with Shakespeare. The wild countryside where Agnes forages for herbs and plants is evoked in a few simple lines. The simmering tension and then downright anger between Shakespeare and his glover father is sharply sketched.
The novel is well researched, and the research blends into the narrative seamlessly. Another world emerges as we read about life in Stratford in the sixteenth century. And Agnes is at the centre of it all: a strong woman raising children, a woman with a gift for seeing into the future, a woman who spends her life within a narrow range of Stratford and its surrounds. It is a beguiling book. The past comes alive in O’Farrell’s skilful writing, and the life of a woman who remains lost in history is given a convincing and beautiful story.
Excerpt: ‘I said,’ he says, lifting his head– she sees that his face is scored with tears, ‘that I may run mad with it. Even now, a year on.’ ‘A year is nothing,’ she says, picking up a fallen chamomile bloom. ‘It’s an hour or a day. We may never stop looking for him. I don’t think I would want to.’
Maggie O’Farrell (born 27 May 1972) is an Irish novelist. Her debut novel After You’d Gone received international acclaim and won the Betty Trask Award.] Her later novel The Hand That First Held Mine won the 2010 Costa Novel Award. She has twice been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award – for Instructions for a Heatwave in 2014 and This Must Be The Place in 2017. She appeared in Waterstones‘ 25 Authors for the Future. Her memoir I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death reached number one in the Sunday Times Bestseller list. (from Wikipedia)