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Hamnet Reviews

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet

Maggie O'Farrell

4.15 out of 5

15 reviews

Imprint: Tinder Press
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
Publication date: 31 Mar 2020
ISBN: 9781472223791

Told in Maggie O'Farrell's unique voice, HAMNET reveals for the first time in fiction the story of heartbreaking loss which inspired Shakespeare's most celebrated play

  • The BooksellerEditor's Choice
5 stars out of 5
Alice O'Keeffe
6 Dec 2019

"Nobody writes more movingly about intimate family relationships, especially children, than O'Farrell, who is that rarest of writers; a genuine literary/commercial crossover"

O'Farrell's first historical novel is set in 1596 and reimagines the story of Shakespeare's lost son, Hamnet, who died aged 11. At the heart of the book is Hamnet, his sisters Judith and Susanna, and his free-spirited mother Agnes. Nobody writes more movingly about intimate family relationships, especially children, than O'Farrell, who is that rarest of writers; a genuine literary/commercial crossover. I can hardly believe it, but 2020 marks 20 years since the publication of her debut, After You'd Gone, and Tinder Press will celebrate by repackaging her backlist.

Reviews

3 stars out of 5
5 Apr 2020

"(an) undeniably intriguing, well-researched novel"

O’Farrell plainly walks in the shadow of Hilary Mantel (witness her ogre-like depiction of Shakespeare’s glove-making father). You can marvel at the meticulous handling of the talented Agnes’s aggrieved perspective, but still miss the strut and fret of Elizabethan life and theatre in its infancy. And, finally, Hamnet himself feels oddly absent. We glean he was a dreamer, a budding genius, but who were his friends, what made him laugh? O’Farrell fleshes him out, but the result is none too solid.

3 stars out of 5
4 Apr 2020

"Maggie O’Farrell recreates Shakespeare’s family and that of Elizabethan England"

Leaves are “restless, verdant, inconstant”. Wind “caresses, ruffles, disturbs” them. The tree they are on is “bending and shuddering and tossing” its branches – and these are all in the space of five lines. Once noticed, it becomes unignorable, and the problem with piling on the descriptions is that it doesn’t deepen the reader’s understanding, it dilutes it.

But when Hamnet dies, the story takes on a new steel, and there is plenty of power in Agnes mourning Hamnet’s body, in the arguments it causes between Agnes and Will (who wants to go to London to pursue “a good opportunity”), in Agnes’s loss of faith in her own abilities and her numb grief, which vividly brings to mind Emily Dickinson’s poem “After great pain . . .”

4 stars out of 5
4 Apr 2020

"The grief of Hamnet’s parents as they watch their adored child succumb to the plague is hauntingly described in Maggie O’Farrell’s novel"

There are occasional shortcomings. O’Farrell has a habit of using inert phrases such as ‘stops in her tracks’, ‘turns on her heel’, ‘sidles up to her’, ‘driving her to distraction’. But these infelicities only stand out because they are surrounded by so many instances of careful observation and serious noticing. She has a particular talent for harnessing the resonance of the seemingly negligible detail, and the part of the book that attends to the effects of Hamnet’s death offers a picture of bereavement that amounts to one of the most painfully and cathartically humane depictions of grief you are likely to encounter.

In this, as in so much else, Hamnet serves as a bewitchingly sensitive register of the ‘vibrating interior’ of the lives of others, and a work that takes intimate measure of the lineaments of the undiscovered country.

4 stars out of 5
Rebecca Abrams
3 Apr 2020

"Shakespeare’s wife takes centre stage in a superb imagining of the impact of the death of the couple’s son"

Maggie O’Farrell’s exquisitely wrought eighth novel proves once again what a very fine writer she is. Hamnet is a deeply felt honouring of the warp and weft of life, the pain and joy that are inextricably part of human experience, the many forms resilience can take, and the unexpected directions from which come grace and hope.

4 stars out of 5
1 Apr 2020

"O’Farrell seems always to be tugging at the reader’s sleeve, telling us to feel something"

This is a rich story by any stretch of the imagination, and O’Farrell’s stretches much, much further than most of ours. But while I admired the accomplishment, I sometimes found the style an obstacle to enjoyment. Hamnet is written vivaciously in the present tense. We have our noses in the action all the time and O’Farrell demands full sensory engagement. Every sentence drips with feeling, so much of it that it often seems she won’t settle for one descriptor where three will do.

5 stars out of 5
Stephanie Merritt
29 Mar 2020

"A fictionalised account of the short life of Shakepeare’s son, Hamnet, is a work of profound understanding"

Hamnet is evidence that there are always new stories to tell, even about the most well-known historical figures. It also confirms O’Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds – qualities also possessed by a certain former Latin tutor from Stratford.

5 stars out of 5
29 Mar 2020

"a sensual retelling of Shakespeare’s turbulent family life"

O’Farrell’s remarkable book bursts with life. Her sentences are packed with commas, as though this teeming, sensual world can only be jotted down in gathered flashes. Like a forest seen through a window: “the wind caresses, ruffles, disturbs the mass of leaves; each tree answers to the weather’s ministrations at a slightly different tempo from its neighbour”. Or news from London “of a rival playhouse owner who released a bag of rats at the climax of their new play, of memorising lines, lines, more lines, of the loss of costumes, of fire…”

5 stars out of 5
Stuart Kelly
28 Mar 2020

"a remarkable piece of work"


This is a staggeringly beautiful and unbearably poignant novel. O’Farrell is one of the most surprisingly quiet radicals in fiction. When I finished it, I wondered – no, I hoped – that instead of shifting genre again, O’Farrell might not follow Mantel with a sequel. After all, the final years of Shakespeare between leaving the stage and dying are another curious absence.

3 stars out of 5
Johanna Thomas-Corr
27 Mar 2020

"It’s a novel that ultimately feels precious and worthy — something Shakespeare never was"

O’Farrell’s prose tends to waft over you rather than pull you in. I found that I was always ten steps ahead of the narrative, itching for some kind of surprise or shift in gear. Agnes is too elusive to be intriguing, while the three children are piously dull. Shakespeare, meanwhile, is a morose dreamer, never referred to by name, only ever in terms of his relationship to the other characters (“Your Latin Boy”, “her son”, “her husband”, “his father”). I wondered whether this was because the author wanted to marginalise his importance in the story of his wife and family. If anything, it has the opposite effect, giving him a mystique.

5 stars out of 5
26 Mar 2020

"Immersive, at times shockingly intimate, and triumphantly brought to fruition, this is a work that ought to win prizes"

As with much contemporary retelling of Greek mythology from a woman’s perspective, this is an almost entirely female take on a familiar story, done with a characteristic lightness of touch and accessibility that achieves universality. At her best, O’Farrell is simply outstanding. Within pages, she can inhabit the mind of an owl, of a great playwright, of a dying boy, of those watching him. It seems she can pretty much do anything on the page that she puts her mind to. Immersive, at times shockingly intimate, and triumphantly brought to fruition, this is a work that ought to win prizes.

4 stars out of 5
26 Mar 2020

"(a) heartbreaking, beautifully written story"

This is Maggie O’Farrell’s first foray into historical fiction, and, as with her contemporary work, it’s the ebb and flow of emotions that carry this heartbreaking, beautifully written story along on its melancholy current.

On a hazy summer’s day in Stratford, 1596, Hamnet, the young, day-dreamy son of William Shakespeare, is searching his empty household for help for his ailing twin, Judith. She survives, but Hamnet (whose name is interchangeable with Hamlet) dies from the plague, and his family falls apart.

4 stars out of 5
Lucy Atkins
22 Mar 2020

"The death of the Bard’s son prompts this powerful novel about parental grief"

Early praise for Hamnet has been heady, and there is certainly great pleasure to be had in O’Farrell’s richly sensuous present-tense writing. But it is as an interpretation of grief that the novel works best. Shakespeare’s pain is visceral — his eyes sweep theatre audiences for his dead child, because, where can he be? He has to be somewhere. And he is, of course: he is on the page, immortalised in words — in the father, the ghost, who takes the dead son’s place.

3 stars out of 5
Claire Allfree
20 Mar 2020

"It's a beautifully written novel but I confess I read it with a faint impatience"

Like Hilary Mantel, O'Farrell uses a disconcertingly intimate present tense but where Mantel's Thomas Cromwell novels have a snapping clarity, the writing in Hamnet has an almost painterly languor. O'Farrell uses perspective the way a film might use a camera, stealing up on scenes from unexpected angles, summoning up this vanished woman from history through sensually composed domestic compositions: the jug of cream and loaf of bread placed on the table, the starched, pressed collars on the landing.

4 stars out of 5
Sarra Manning
12 Mar 2020

"a visceral, lushly drawn story"

Maggie O'Farrell returns with her first historical novel, Hamnet, which explores the true story behind Shakespeare's most famous play. Before there was Hamlet, there was Hamnet, Shakespeare's son, his twin sister Judith and their mother, the otherworldly Agnes. Weaving fact with rich imagination, Hamnet is a visceral, lushly drawn story that brings this family and their defining tragedy to life.