Today, it’s a review of a book that’s highly loved and adored right now on social media. It’s the wonderful, tender, heartbreaking new novel from Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet. And trust me, it’s out-of-this-world amazing.
I’ve been waiting for this book for a very long time and once I had my copy, I couldn’t stop myself reading. I’m going to say it here first: this is by far the best book I’ve read in a very long time and I just knew, as I predicted, it is my book of the year. But first… what’s it about? Here’s the synopsis:
TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.
On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?
Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.
Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.
As I’ve said previously on the blog, I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare – I studied him, his plays – I’m a bit obsessed, to be honest. Everything about him I just want to read and digest and there’s one aspect of Shakespeare that I always want to know more and that’s Hamnet, his son who died when he was a child and the influence that has on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. And this is where Maggie O’Farrell comes in with her remarkable reimagining of Hamnet, that young boy, his mother, his father and the rest of his family.
I don’t think I’ve had such an emotional response to a book in a very long time. The subject matter, is of course, heartbreaking, but Maggie O’Farrell has the ability to lift it, to go deeper, to make you feel every emotion possible. It’s outstanding in the way that she writes so lightly but packs a big punch. There were certain moments that I felt every emotion that Agnes, Hamnet’s mother, felt.
I’ve not read anything from Maggie O’Farrell before (I know, I know! That will soon change!), but I adored her writing. It’s historical fiction so of course there is a strong sense of time and place but I actually felt that I was in that time, that street, that house, that bedroom, that playhouse, that churchyard. The writing is atmospheric, it’s lyrical, it’s poetic and it has this ethereal quality in the way that she plays with language. The descriptive writing is exquisite – it’s everything you want in a novel, especially historical fiction, to have every sense tingling. The way she described the weather, nature, the dirt on the street, the flowers, the food – the food! It’s that sort of writing that you just want to dive into and be lost for a while.
The characters in this book felt so real, more than jumping from the page. They felt so real, raw, I felt that I was there, in that room, with that family in their grief. This is a story of Hamnet, a young boy forgotten in history and the fame and glory shown on his father (I found it really clever that she doesn’t mention William Shakespeare by name but you know exactly who he is), but it’s also the story of his wife, Agnes, who is also forgotten in history. Agnes is the beating heart of the novel, I believe. She is our compass, our way into the story, the one (among many) who we connect with. I was in awe of O’Farrell’s writing of Agnes. The way she wrote about a mother’s grief, a mother’s love, was brilliant and Agnes has all these different layers to her as the novel progresses. This is also a story of the other women in Hamnet/Shakespeare’s lives – the daughters, his mother, the midwife, etc. Throughout the novel, we see glimpses of different perspectives in the community and they, too, felt like real and established characters.
There is so much imagery in this novel that took my breath away. The way that she described the streets, the house that they lived in, describing death and grief, a marriage, a family, but more than that, too. Animals are featured a lot in the novel – a hawk, an owl, a fox (among others) and we see it from their perspective too as they make their way across the streets of London. We also see how the plague came to be and infected Judith and Hamnet – I know it’s probably not a good time to read about the plague but I can’t recommend this book enough.
Overall, this book is everything I want in a novel, and more. It absorbed me, it moved me and it made me feel every emotion under the sun and that is the testament of Maggie O’Farrell’s writing. It is a triumph, a celebration of language, of creativity. It’s dazzling, devastating, heartbreaking but full of hope, too. It’s tender, lyrical, poetic, mythical at parts, too. For me, it is a masterpiece. A modern classic and one for the ages. It captivated me from the very first page and hooked me to the last. Goosebumps galore. Just stunning and I hope it wins the Women’s Prize and every other prize going because it deserves it, and more. A reimagining of a lost boy in history and the heartbreaking pain and love of his mother, Agnes. Just a stunning piece of work that I can’t wait to go back to and fall in love with it all again.
Have you read Hamnet? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!