Winner of the Waterstones Book of the Year 2020 and the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, Hamnet is Maggie O’Farrell’s eighth novel.
Although named after Shakespeare’s son and focused around his short life, the narrative strand of Anne Shakespeare (here known as Agnes) is much more prominent. She explodes from the novel as a fascinating, powerful woman – a healer and free spirit more at home in the rural surrounds of woodlands than the town.
The first part of the story takes place over a very short period of time and the pace is frantic, flitting from present day to past memories. The novel opens as we travel with a young boy (later revealed to be Hamnet) desperate to find help for his sick sister. We move with him through his home, through his town as he tries to find relatives. The narrative is incredibly tense but also richly detailed – by imbuing the prose with so much sensory detail in phrases such as “The smell of his grandparents’ home is always the same: a mix of woodsmoke, polish, leather, wool”, O’Farrell plunges us into 16th century Stratford.
From the outset, the narrative flits back and forwards from Hamnet’s perilous situation to flashbacks of the development on Agnes’ relationship with her husband (who, interestingly is never named. This is a book steeped in the domestic lives of those close to him, not a fictional biography). We see her as Shakespeare did – his first sighting of her creates a vision of a magical creature trapped in a loveless home with a horrible stepmother who beats her.
It’s the flashing backwards and forwards that gives this novel such energy and pace. When paired with the rich narrative O’Farrell weaves through her detailed descriptions and intimate characterisation, it’s easy to understand why this book has won so many awards – it’s an enchanting tour-de-force. Through his wife’s eyes, we see Shakespeare as a young man, victim of a cruel father, building a fresh and unexpected image of one of the most famous characters in literature. We also see her incredible self-sacrifice as she sends him away from her to allow him the chance to grow and dissolve the “cloud of grey and rot coming off her husband”.
O’Farrell plays with the narrative with a deftness that is thrilling, such as in the chapter that details the flow of the plague from its source as a flea in Venice to the small town in Warwickshire. Like the flea itself, we leap from image to image, all richly woven and textured, bringing a unexpectedly human element to the notion of disease.
The first part comes to a close with Agnes’ awful realisation that the disease has leaped from one child to the other. There’s a terrible pathetic fallacy here – although many readers will already know the history of Hamnet’s life, O’Farrell brings fresh tragedy as we’re shown young Hamnet sacrificing himself for his sister: “He sends these words into her: I want you to take my life. It shall be yours. I give it to you.”
With the second part of the novel, there’s a narrative shift and we stay firmly rooted in the present as the family try to come to terms with their tragedy. Both parents are given almost equal attention as we are shown the depths of their grief. O’Farrell’s style is still rooted in the detail – the description of the washing of the body is heart-wrenching in its detail – and the language remains incredibly poetic as we’re told that Shakespeare feels “as though he is caught in a web of absence, its strings and tendrils ready to stick and cling to him, whichever way he turns.”
Soon, the text becomes truncated and broken into short paragraphs to illustrate how the world is marching on around Agnes who is mired in her grief “Here is a season Hamnet has not known or touched. Here is a world moving on without him”
O’Farrell uses the narrative to show the destructive nature of grief. Although we are shown the struggles of each family member, tragedy swells as they isolate themselves from one another, “The silence swells between them; it expands and wraps itself around them; it acquires shape and form and tendrils, which wave off into the air, like the threads trailing from a broken web.”
Shakespeare is referred to throughout as ‘the father’ or ‘the tutor’ so when Agnes’ mother comes to gloatingly tell her that there’s a new play with a name that will upset her, O’Farrell continues to allow us to join the dots, pulling us deeper into the narrative and giving us ownership. Just as the beginning pushes us through at pace, the ending forces us to pause with a deftly woven, lingering final image that echoes for days after reading. An astonishing book.