Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Haunting. 

Musical. 

Lyrical. 

Heart-breaking. 

Grief. 

Loss. 

Pain. 

Weakness. 

Strength. 

These are only a few of the words that ran through my head while I was reading this book.  Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a tour-de-force.  It takes hold of you and keeps you in it’s grip until the very last page.  This book is, in one word: intense.   And that is a very good thing.

Hamnet is the story of the Shakespeare family, the relationship between Agnes and William, their marriage, the birth of their children, the death of their son Hamnet who died at the age of 11 in 1596, and the grief that follows the family for the rest of their lives.  The first part of the book tells the story of Hamnet’s last day as he tries to save his twin sister from the plague, while battling his own delirium from the disease. Interspersed with his tragic demise is the story of Agnes, as a girl then a woman with a mind of her own and a personality to match, who weds Shakespeare and has a life (and children) with him before he becomes a famous playwright that tortures (or delights) high school students up until today.

The second part of the book contains the ruins of the family after Hamnet’s death.  It can be summed up in just two words: grief and depression.  Maggie O’Farrell writes this sadness in a way that is palpable, accessible, and completely heart breaking.  Even the most stoic of readers will feel something from the deep depression that Agnes cannot seem to escape, from the distraught father who cannot bring himself to go home, and from two daughters forced to pick up the pieces of their mother’s life while nursing their own serious bereavement.  And, at the end, born from that heartbreak and the bard’s grief-filled words came one of Shakespeare’s most lauded and haunting plays.

This book is one of the most engaging books I have ever read. It is literary without being overburdensome in it’s language. And yet, it has incredibly gorgeous prose.  So beautiful that after reading a passage about a beehive overflowing with honey, I was salivating.  So lyrical that during Hamnet’s last day, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were inside a dream.  So detailed that the story of how a flea containing the plague travelled from Egypt to Judith’s (and the Hamnet’s) bodies, made me feel disgusted (and terrified) about all kinds of plagues (Covid nightmares, table for one.)  And so haunting that when Hamnet succumbs to the disease, I had to take a break from reading.  I never take a break from reading because of being overwhelmed with emotions.  Never. 

If you aren’t a fan of Shakespeare – fear not.  The Bard is not even mentioned by name.  It is as if his only value to the story is how he relates or is related to other people.  I assume this must be a specific choice, perhaps saying something about Shakespeare’s presence in his son’s life, in his own life, or how he escaped real life to run off to the theater. This one of the things that intrigued me – for a book that is about Shakespeare, his name is omitted.  But perhaps it is a choice to allow the important people in his life: his wife Agnes, and his children Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet to finally receive their due?   

I so rarely give books five stars.  This is one of them.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, published 2020

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