This review is part of our Goodreads, Love Yourshelf bookclub and our ongoing Book Reviews project.
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Maggie O'Farrell's 2020 novel, Hamnet, contains a historical note before the story begins. Part of the note says "The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.
Right away, O'Farrell sets the scene for this poignant historical fiction work focused on grief. Set amidst the late 16th-century Warwickshire, England, and London, Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life and even less about his wife and their only son. O'Farrell, therefore, had a very clean slate on which to draw up the story surrounding Agnes, his wife, their love, the pestilence (the infamous bubonic plague), and the death of their child. Regardless of the little that is known about Shakespeare’s life, O'Farrell wrote the novel with as much accuracy as possible.
The book is hard to put down, partly because of the characters and their relationships with one another, but also because the book intensely and eloquently portrays grief. Stripping away the characters and the setting, O'Farrell's book is a story that powerfully conveys the desperate despair of parents grieving for the loss of their child.
Through this book, William Shakespeare feels like he was an actual, breathing, walking, feeling person. And the wife which O'Farrell partners him with is both real and fantastical at the same time. Agnes is a child of the country, with a knowledge of medicinal plants, and the ability to know things about people. She is believable enough, but at times, she almost feels like a being stepping off of the pages of a Shakespearean play. Which, of course, feels natural enough. There is perhaps no better way to imagine the spouse of Shakespeare, even if they did live apart most of their married lives; O’Farrell composes their love story into a sweeping movement. It is full of lust, love, passion; forgiveness, loss, and understanding. It may be fictionalized, but it is visceral.
Reading about the death of Shakespeare’s son, and a version of life in 16th century England amidst the bubonic plague may very well inspire you to learn more about the playwright and poet’s life. The death of a child is a tragedy, and O’Farrell’s stance that the play Hamlet was a response to the death of Hamnet is intriguing and ultimately convincing.
But there is even more strength and prowess of the grief of a parent and love between two people. It is the looming plague. Perhaps there can be no better time to read and understand a book where a deadly illness with flu-like symptoms, easily going from victim to victim and causing closures, than amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The bubonic plague looks quietly in the background, just as our own pandemic. It makes the loss of Hamnet even more bitter, even more real, to the modern reader.
The book isn’t necessarily brilliant, but it certainly is a master at studying grief and love. Hamnet also takes one of the most recognizable names - William Shakespeare - and turns him into someone that many of us may know: a devoted husband and a grieving parent.