“Hamnet”—a brief review

October 16, 2022 • 12:15 pm

Hamnet, the ninth book by Maggie O’Farrell, was recommended by more than one reader the last time we had our occasional book go-round, and I’m glad it was mentioned.  I’ve just finished it, and recommend it very highly. (Click the screenshot below to see the Amazon site.)  I’d give it an A, and though it’s not quite the tour de force of the last reader-recommended book I essayed ( Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a Pulitzer winner that you MUST read), I’d certainly place Hamnet above nearly all the contemporary fiction I’ve read lately. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of the book, though it did win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2020.

In 16th century England the names “Hamnet” and “Hamlet” were interchangeable, and the Hamnet of the title is in fact the real name of William Shakespeare’s son, who died of unknown causes at age 11 in 1596. The real Hamnet had a twin sister named Judith, who died years later, in 1662.  Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, also had an older girl, Susanna, who lived to be 66. The bard himself died at age 52—tragically early.

Here is the baptismal record of Hamnet and Judith in 1585, and below that the death record of Hamnet in 1596:

We know very little about Shakespeare or his family, but these are the facts upon which O’Farrell builds her novel, a novel fantastic in both senses.  While Wiliam hangs heavily over the novel, his name is never mentioned: he’s referred to as “Hamnet’s father”, or “Mary’s son”.  This is deliberate, for O’Farrell centers the novel on his family. Its center is the playwright’s wife Agnes (renamed from Anne) a sprite of a woman who has the gift of divination and healing with medicinal herbs, an a woman who prefers to crawl into the forest to birth her three children alone rather than stay at home with a midwife. The life of the extended family unreels while William is mostly off stage, having moved early to London to do what he really wants but can’t do in Stratford: write and put on plays.

O’Farrell did substantial research for the book, so that, for example, we see Shakespeare’s father as the glove-maker he was, with the nascent bard continually pressured to learn that trade. (The book leaps backwards and forwards in time.) The twins are inseparable—until the plague takes Hamnet, leaving his entire family inconsolable (William is in London, four days away, and doesn’t get home in time for his son’s death. (The short section on how the flea that bit Hamnet came from Italy is a novel in itself.) Hamnet’s death, with its own supernatural overtones, is heartbreaking; its effect on Agnes is the complete evisceration of her character, so that she can do nothing but lie abed and ponder her dead son.  Judith is hard hit as well, but we don’t learn the depths of the father’s despair until he writes a play with the title being a variant of Hamnet’s name.

It is when Agnes learns of this play and its title that the novel reaches its apogee, but I won’t reveal what happens lest I spoil the narrative. All I can say is that this is a book in which you can run a gamut of emotions on nearly every page. Someone asked me if the book was a “sad one”, and I didn’t know what to answer. It is sad in the way life is sad, leavened with moments of wonder and joy, and the sadness is redeemed in the end.  Yes, there’s a bit of the supernatural in Agnes’s divinations (she can tell a lot about someone merely by pinching the web of skin between their thumb and forefingers), but by and large it’s about life in 16th-century rural England, all overshadowed by an absent father scribbling away in London.

I loved the book and recommend it highly, just a notch in quality behind All the Light We Cannot See, but I still give it an A. I’m surprised that it hasn’t been made into a movie, for it would lend itself well to drama. I see now that in fact a feature-length movie is in the works, and I hope they get good actors and a great screenwriter.

I am now reading another book recommended by a reader, and the comments on posts like this one have been a valuable source of reading material—both fact and fiction. If you please, do tell us below what you’re reading now, or what you’ve read lately, and how highly you recommend it. Don’t forget any books you want to warn us off of!

22 thoughts on ““Hamnet”—a brief review

  1. I just finished Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. He got the Booker Prize for The English Patient. I listened to the book on CD, read by Steve West. He did a calm, quiet read. Excellent stuff. The best book (for me) of the year.

  2. My local library lists Hamnet and an ebook titled Hamnet and Judith. Both by the same author and both copyright 2020. Are thses the same book?

    1. Thanks. I should have realized that. Canadian bookstores and libraries will sometimes stock US, British, or Canadian editions. Sometime various combinations of all three.

  3. I’m reading The End of the World Is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan. I really like it. It talks about where we are now geopolitically, how that came about, and what that means for the future.

    1. I’ll be interested to hear your final opinion of it. Update us in the next of these threads? I am not sure Amazon is doing it any favors by quoting an editorial review that calls the author “the Nostradamus of the twenty-first century.”

  4. I just finished Clement Eaton’s The Freedom of Thought Struggle in the Old South. It looks at the impact of the slavery controversy on, well, freedom of thought. I am just starting Fogle and Engerman’s Time on the Cross, their “historical econometric” study of slavery. I read it for a colloquium in college and want to see if my mature view of it is any better. For fun I’ve just started Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a sort of Harry Potter meets Narnia meets I don’t know what, but certainly not a children’s book.

  5. Upon your (Prof. Coyne’s) recommendation a couple of weeks ago, I am reading Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River.” The long passage that tells of the Harvard-bound boy’s midnight train ride northeast from Catawba is hypnotic. And I’m reading it in October–weird, old October. My goodness, what writing!

  6. (Second attempt at leaving reply, first must be lost in the ether). Anyway, I enjoyed Hamnet immensely, and as best I recall, moreso than All the Light (perhaps it seemed to predictable, while Hamnet seemed so inventive…but it’s been a while).

  7. I just ordered ‘Hamnet’ for my Airbnb (the ‘Red Kettle’ in Beaufort West, basically a town in the South African desert called the Great Karoo) which has purposely no TV or Wifi, but a small, eclectic library (yes, it has Faith vs Fact too, of course, and To Kill a Mocking Bird and Huckleberry Finn, and Irreparable Damage, etc. etc.). Many thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Haven’t read Hamnet yet (and I suppose I ought to, even though I am resistant to books with supernatural bits); but I remain surprised that no reviewer that I’ve read seems to have drawn the connection with the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode of Ulysses, where Stephen Dedalus presents his hypothesis (which he laughingly indicates he doesn’t believe himself) that ‘Hamlet’ is based on aspects of Shakespeare’s own life, including the death of his son. I don’t think O’Farrell herself has acknowledged the connection either.

    I’m currently reading ‘Helgoland’, by Carlo Rovelli, about the development of quantum mechanics. It’s good.

  9. Jerry, there is already a movie about the death of Shakespeare’s son – “All Is True” – starring Judi Dench, Kenneth Brannagh and Ian McKellan. I highly recommend it.

  10. Just finished _What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics_ by Adam Backer. Discusses the history and current state of quantum mechanics. I’ve read many books on qm, but this is different and extremely well written. Much discussion of the philosophy of science and its importance; something which I must admit I have given little thought to. Backer gives great props to Einstein and his importance in today’s understanding of reality.

    1. Have you read Jim Baggott’s “Quantum reality”? It’s the best book I’ve found so far on this subject. There are other books by folks like Rovelli, Carroll, Susskind, Ananthasway and probably more. It’s a popular subject but difficult to explain well.

  11. Another imagined tale of Shakespeare’s life is Nothing Like The Sun by Anthony Burgess. Whilst Burgess tried a little too hard to be literary and clever, his natural talent still shone through. It’s as good a theory as any as to who the Dark Lady might have been!

  12. Anything by Paul Theroux is always good. Just finished one of his early novels, Fong and the Indians, an excellent Graham Greene/Somerset Maugham type romp. His last non fiction book, On the Plain of Snakes, about his travels in Mexico, meeting dissident writers and artists, was superb. Looking forward to reading his new novel, The Bad Angel Brothers

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