My rating: 5 stars
A story about grief, parenthood, love and family life, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a convincing, albeit fictional, tale about the events surrounding the death of the son of a famous playwright, William Shakespeare, who is never mentioned by his name. The feelings of the characters are so palpable and intense that we can almost experience them ourselves. Although this is the story of an entire family, it is mostly Agnes who is in the spotlight. Her suffering is profoundly portrayed.
The book starts with a historical note to let readers know that this is the story of a couple who lived in Stratford in the 1580s. They had three children – Susanna, plus the twins Hamnet and Judith. We know from the outset that this is to be a sad tale. Hamnet died in 1596, when he was eleven years old. Some years later, his father wrote a play called Hamlet.
Sometime before his death, Hamnet is desperately looking for his mother, grandmother or any other member of the household, as his sister Judith is feeling unwell. He can’t find anyone. Agnes is at a garden where she grows medicinal herbs. She was called there because something was wrong with the bees. His older sister and his grandmother are in town, and his father is in London. Eventually, he finds someone in the house. Unfortunately, it is his grandfather, a disgraced glover, who is drunk and ends up throwing a cup at his face.
Some chapters are set in the past, which proves essential to learn more about the characters and to understand the reasoning behind some of their actions. Hamnet’s father met Agnes when he was a Latin tutor. He had always wanted to be able to escape his violent father. Agnes lost her mother when she was very young. She died soon after giving birth to a child who also didn’t survive. Growing up, Agnes and her brother lived with their father and his second wife, but she didn’t feel loved, she felt constantly out of place. They tried to make her forget about her mother, claiming that she couldn’t possibly remember her.
As time passes, Agnes proves to be resourceful and assertive. She believes that she has some kind of premonitions about what will happen in the future. Susanna resents the attention that her mother pays to the people who seek her looking for help to cure various ailments. She also wishes that her father would spend more time at home, instead of being in London for so long.
In both timelines, the story is told in the third person in such a way that the narrator seems to be both omniscient and subjective. Sometimes the narrator seems to be all-knowing, while others the focus is on the thoughts, opinions and feelings of specific characters. Not only are the inner feelings and struggles of the characters whose points of view are being focused on made perfectly clear, but they also help to better understand the personalities of the other characters. They feel so real that the story is constantly engaging.
The rhythm of the sentences and the choice of words are both also exquisite. Although the actions are described in utmost detail, they never feel dull, because the musicality of the language is so immersive. Hamnet’s search for someone to help his sister, for example, spans pages, but not a single word feels one too many. The combination of the minutiae of the storytelling with the visual metaphors and similes makes the narration superb.
“Hamnet swallows, his throat closed and tight. His tongue feels furred, ungainly, too large to fit in his mouth. He scrambles upright, the room blurring around him. A pain enters the back of his head and crouches there, snarling, like a cornered rat.”
The feelings of the characters are believably portrayed. Agnes’s desperation to keep her children safe, in particular, is palpable. The descriptions of objects occasionally even gain new meanings, being used as metaphors that help to convey the characters’ strong emotions. The grief is so intense that the words on the page almost brought tears to my eyes.
“With her back to the door, she faces the fireplace, which is filled only with ashes, held in the fragile shape of the log they once were.”
Maggie O’Farrell penned a believable and poignant tale about the death of William Shakespeare’s son. But this could also perfectly be the story of any family who is grieving the loss of a child. The name Shakespeare is not important, the emotions are, so he is never mentioned by his name. He is always the husband, the father, the son, the tutor… This is the story of a family that can’t bear the thought of possibly forgetting about those they love.