Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Blog Tour Review)

I’ve been a huge admirer of Maggie O’Farrell’s work ever since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which won the Costa Novel Award, in 2011. I was intrigued by the premise of her new book, in which she delves further back into history than she has before to imagine the context of the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the effect it had on the playwright’s work – including, four years later, Hamlet.

Curiously, O’Farrell has decided never to mention Shakespeare by name in her novel, so he remains a passive, shadowy figure seen only in relation to his wife and children – he’s referred to as “the father,” “the Latin tutor” or “her husband.” Instead, the key characters are his wife Agnes (most will know her as Anne, but Agnes was the name her father, Richard Hathaway, used for her in his will) and Hamnet himself.

 

 

As the novel opens, 11-year-old Hamnet is alone in his grandfather’s glove workshop. His twin sister Judith has a fever and lumps at her neck and he is frantically trying to find an adult. But with his father in London, his mother off tending her bees and his grandfather’s indifference all too ready to shade into violence, there is no one to help. Although it’s Judith who appears to be ill with the Plague, readers know from the scant historical record that it is Hamnet who dies. Somehow, even though we see this coming, it’s still a heavy blow. Hamnet is a story of the moments that change everything, of regrets that last forever: Agnes will ever after be afflicted with a sense of having neglected her children just when they needed her.

Short chapters set in that summer of 1596 alternate with longer ones from 15 years before, when WS was engaged as a Latin tutor to the sons of a sheep farmer to pay off his father’s debts. Soon he became captivated by a young woman with a kestrel whom he assumed to be the family’s maid but learned was actually the unconventional daughter of the household, Agnes. She had a reputation as a herbal healer and was known to have second sight – just by holding someone’s hand, she could see into their past or predict their future.

There are some wonderfully vivid scenes in this earlier story line, including a tryst in the apple shed and Agnes going off alone into the forest to give birth to their first child, Susanna. My favourite chapter of all, though, is the central one that traces the journey of the pestilence from a glassmaker’s studio in Italy to the small Warwickshire village. The medical subplot of Hamnet has taken on a new significance that O’Farrell surely never predicted when she was immersing herself in the time period by undertaking falconry and mudlarking.

Although I remain a big fan, Hamnet is the least successful of the six books of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read. Her trademark third person omniscient voice and present tense narration, which elsewhere exude confidence and immediacy, here create detachment and even vagueness (“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs”; “Look. Agnes is pouring water into a pan”). The strategy for evoking the 16th century seems to be to throw in the occasional period prop, but the dialogue and vocabulary can feel anachronistic, as in “Boys! Stop that this instant! Or I’ll come up there and give you something to wail about”.

In comparison with historical fiction I’ve read recently by Geraldine Brooks and Hilary Mantel, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief. My reaction was lukewarm, but this should not deter readers from trying this wonderful writer – if not this book, then any one of her previous five.


My thanks to Midas PR and Tinder Press for the free copy for review.

20 responses

  1. What a shame. Like you, I normally love Maggie O’Farrell’s work. But I might give this a miss.

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    1. There’d be no harm in getting it out from the library and trying a few chapters. You’d know early on if you were going to be underwhelmed like I was. Sigh. I still have her first three to go back to…

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  2. Ah, it’s that narrative style that I’ve so enjoyed in O’Farrell’s novels. I wasn’t particularly drawn to this one so I think I’ll give it a miss.

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    1. It was like your curate’s egg — there were parts I loved. I had certain expectations about the Shakespeare connection that weren’t met, so I might have preferred a story about ordinary folk of that time.

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  3. This has had such mixed reviews. Some have thought it was destined to be the book of the year and others, like you, have been disappointed by it. I’m normally a great O’Farrell fan so I’m betwixt and between at the moment not knowing whether or not to read this.

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    1. I never would have predicted that I would be on the naysayers’ side, having absolutely loved her previous five books. I’d advise trying a Kindle sample or a library copy. A part of my problem was that I was reading Year of Wonders (fairly similar in content) and The Mirror & the Light at the same time as Hamnet, and both felt more accomplished and/or intimate.

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  4. Thanks for supporting the blog tour Rebecca, sorry you didn’t like this one so much xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, Anne. I’m sorry, too! I was still so pleased to get a chance to read it. Thanks for your hard work putting the tour together at the last minute.

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  5. I just read this although not reviewed it. I really enjoyed it, though I agree it’s not as accomplished as novels by other historical writers, I thought there was quite a good sense of period and place. I liked the character of Agnes. I certainly wouldn’t call it the book of the year though, I found it an enjoyable read, but probably no more than that.

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    1. I think I had my expectations too high, partly because of all the hype. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  6. I’m sorry to hear this one didn’t quite do it for you – I love Maggie O’Farrell and was so excited to see this come out. I think I’ll still give it a go but am glad to be warned that it’s a bit different to her other work.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by. My problem was almost that it was too similar to her other work, and her usual strategies didn’t seem to suit the material.

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  7. As discussed, I 100% agree! (Sorry to be pedantic, but hasn’t she written seven previous books, plus her memoir? Though if it’s My Lover’s Lover you’ve forgotten, it is infinitely forgettable…)

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    1. Thanks for our chat; it really helped with clarifying my opinions. I looked back at your review once I finished writing mine and was glad to see that we concurred on most things but that I hadn’t just parroted your views either.

      I’ve read six of her books now, including the five that were released prior to this one. (I’ve still not gotten hold of her first three novels. I always expect to come across them in charity shops, but never have!) So I was only mentioning the ones I can vouch for.

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      1. Ah sorry, I misread! If we ever get to meet up, I can lend you at least two of them.

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  8. […] what I was most missing in the London and Roth novels (and in Hamnet, which bears such striking thematic similarities to Year of Wonders) was intimate first-person […]

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  9. I’ve read it now. And I absolutely loved it. Ah well, you never can tell until you try …

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    1. Excellent! No, you never can tell. I would always have predicted that I would love it (having loved everything else I’d read by her).

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] also heard some of my favourite bloggers such as Eric from Lonesome Reader or Rebecca Foster at Bookish Beck that it falls short, either in terms of Maggie O’Farrell’s other work or compared to […]

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