THE PLOT: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is about the family of William Shakespeare. Set in 1596, it tells the fictionalized story of his wife Agnes and the death of their son, Hamnet. Moving backwards and forwards in time, it alternates between the origins of William and Agnes’s relationship, and the plague that kills their child. It’s also the story of an ordinary family from Stratford-Upon-Avon who will become legendary. A mother’s grief, a sibling bond, a father-in-law’s heavy hand. It’s about the mix of the commonplace and the extraordinary, which led to one of the greatest plays ever written.
RATING: Winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize, this is undoubtedly a five-star novel. It’s slow and poetic and earthy and heart-shattering. I found the writing style completely original, with a third person point of view that moves around the characters yet remains intensely intimate. It’s not a book that shouts about itself. Its’ unique and quiet beauty means it’s worthy of the highest praise.
GOOD BITS: Ultimately this book is about Agnes. A woman who understands the healing powers of herbs, but cannot save her son. It’s about the unbearable grief which follows the loss of a child. From a plot point of view, my favourite aspect was the backstory about Agnes’s mother and upbringing. From a stylistic point of view, I enjoyed the descriptions of Agnes’s connection to the earth and nature, and her somewhat magical qualities.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: If you love a fast-paced thriller, this isn’t going to be a book for you. It’s extremely slow and detailed, so there were moments when I felt myself drifting away or skimming through. However, when I felt this, I kept going back to the previous page/paragraph/sentence so I could take in the rich, evocative language.
OVERALL: If you like literary and/or historical fiction, this will be a great novel for you. The descriptions reminded me of the claustrophobic heat and earthiness in The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, or the mirroring between the cold descriptions of the sea and the hardiness of the people in The Mercies by Kiran Millwood-Hargrave. If you delight in an apt simile, a well-placed look, a pregnant pause, the space between the intake of breath, a drop of dew about to fall from a leaf, this book will fill you with its beauty.