How Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” Became my Favorite Read of 2020, So Far (Book Review)

Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Synopsis: A thrilling departure: A short, piercing, deeply moving new novel from the acclaimed author of I Am, I Am, I Am, about the death of Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son Hamnet–a name interchangeable with Hamlet in fifteenth-century Britain–and the years leading up to the production of his great play.

England, 1580. A young Latin tutor–penniless, bullied by a violent father–falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman: a wild creature who walks her family’s estate with a falcon on her shoulder and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer. Agnes understands plants and potions better than she does people, but once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose gifts as a writer are just beginning to awaken when his beloved young son succumbs to bubonic plague.

A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a hypnotic recreation of the story that inspired one of the greatest literary masterpieces of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing and seductive, an impossible-to-put-down novel from one of our most gifted writers.

My thoughts:

I find it rare for a book to consume me entirely, as of late. It could be 2020, my idleness, or my inability to connect to the novels I’ve picked up that have contributed to this feeling. But, the moment I read the first page of Hamnet, I was captivated by a piece of Shakespeare’s history that I had not heard about previously, despite the fact that this novel takes bare-bone facts about the Bard’s life and creates a fictional tale all of its own.

I was immediately engrossed in the lives of these characters, fascinated by the author’s fictionalization of one of the most famous men in the world and the way she brought his wife and children to life on the pages of her novel. Agnes, the protagonist of this tale, now has a piece of my heart. Witnessing her seamless character development, her happiness, and her despair, tugged at my heart and made my stomach bottom out at the inevitable loss she faces. It’s a loss that you feel creeping up behind you, with every passing page, and yet it still hits you like an unpredicted storm when it eventually comes.

I’m in awe of O’Farrell’s ability to craft a story about a family facing an indescribable amount of grief through the lens of each family member coping with that darkness in vastly different ways. Seeing them grow and shift over the course of the years, in this story, made me feel as though I were a part of the family, living alongside them through years that changed their lives forever. O’Farrell’s characterization, especially Agnes’, is absolutely flawless and made me feel as though I was getting a glimpse into her world that I should look away from because, at times, I felt as though I were intruding on something so personal and private.

While I do wish we explored William’s perspective a bit more– because all Shakespeare fans are eager to peek into the mind of such an intelligent man– I’m glad Hamnet shines a light on Agnes’ life: her emotions, her journey, her strife. I’m glad her story was told. I’m fascinated by her, and I want to weep for all her losses. It’s rare for me to find a novel that evokes so much emotion from me, and I’m so glad that I stumbled across this tale. It made me appreciate Hamlet, William, and his family that much more by learning about a piece of their history that was fictionalized in a way that brought me closer to one of my favorite writers.

If you adore Shakespeare, this is a must-read.

Hamnet links: Goodreads | Barnes and Noble | Bookshop*

*The starred links [*] above are affiliate links, so I do receive a small commission from the retailer if you use my link which helps out me, as a creator, and is no extra cost to you!

NOTE: A physical copy of this novel was provided to me by Knopf. All opinions are my own.

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