book review, historical fiction, history

Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a novel about William Shakespeare and his family without ever saying the name William Shakespeare. Instead, Maggie O’ Farrell weaves a world of natural wonder and splendor, as well as an acknowledgment of the unseen, through the eyes of Agnes (history knows her as Anne Hathaway) and their children Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith.

The novel switches time periods between chapters; from young Agnes and William’s courtship, to the boy Hamnet realizing the plague has come to their home. Agnes/Anne is described as otherworldly, having gifts in both herbalism and healing, as well as the sight (which is used by pinching someone’s skin between the thumb and forefinger.) Agnes has inherited these traits and abilities from her mother, who as legend has it, emerged from the forest as a sort of elfen woman. Agnes rails against her cruel step-mother and forges her own path ahead with her new suitor despite the family’s displeasure with him. However, it is not long until Agnes’ husband leaves to make his dreams come true in London. But London changes him, leaving Agnes reeling with feelings of betrayal.

In the flash forward chapters of Hamnet, the children grow up in the serenity of the countryside and learn of herbalism and healing from their mother. Susanna is a teenager who views her mother has an oddball, while the twins Hamnet and Judith seem to hold the same sensitivity as Agnes.

Maggie O’Farrell’s writing style is unique in its use of tense and description. She has the ability to zero in on otherwise unnoticed details in order to build the world of 16th century Stratford, as well as the nuanced emotions of her characters. To put it simply, her prose is beautiful. The rhythm may be jarring at first if you are used to conventional writing styles, but I would advise to keep an open mind and just enjoy her ability to create unique and stunning images.