Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell


This would have been quite a good read, if hardly the book of the year, and albeit being written in the present tense (I do wish that this trend for books for adults to be written in the present tense would die a rapid death), if it had just been a story about a fictional character; but it’s rather annoying when authors pin their own stories on real historical figures, in this case Anne Hathaway.  Very little is known about Anne, either before, during or after her marriage to Shakespeare, and the author hasn’t contradicted any of what is known; but she’s written a tale about a fey/cunning/wise woman, and then given the woman the name of a real historical person and fitted the story into what’s known of that person’s life.  Is that annoying?  Or is someone about whom so little is known fair game for any story that a writer cares to come up with?

The title’s rather confusing, because it suggests that the book’s about Hamnet, the Shakespeares’ son who died aged around 11.  In fact, the book’s rather confusing generally.  The main character is called Agnes, not Anne.  Yes, I know that Anne Hathaway is named in her father’s will as “Agnes”, but she’s referred to as “Anne” everywhere else, and everyone knows her as “Anne”!   And it jumps backwards and forwards, between the present, which is Hamnet’s illness, his death, and the family trying to come to terms with it, and the past, which is Agnes/Anne’s life up to this point.

It does actually start with Hamnet, and it starts very, very slowly, as page after page is filled with Hamnet’s search to come to help his twin sister Judith, who’s been taken ill.  The story which Maggie O’Farrell’s come up with is that it’s originally Judith who falls ill, and that Hamnet tricks death into taking him instead – so there is a bit of a supernatural thing going on there, and that runs throughout the book, with Agnes, as I said, being a bit fey.  The grief of Agnes and of Hamnet’s sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the issues caused by Shakespeare working away, and the question of whether or not there was a connection between Hamnet’s death and the writing of the play “Hamlet” are all quite well-portrayed.

So, to be fair, is the story of Agnes’s childhood, her marriage to William Shakespeare and her early married life, once the book gets going and once you accept that this fey/cunning woman story has been hung on to the life of Anne Hathaway.  Not an awful lot actually happens, but it’s not meant to be a book about national political events.  It does, however, mention that the playhouses were closed during the plague season … oh, when will we be able to go back to the theatre?!

All in all, not a bad book, and certainly well worth the 99p which it cost me when it came up as a Kindle daily deal.  I just wasn’t entirely convinced by the idea of combining a story about a real family with a story about a different topic.  But, hey, maybe that’s just me!


8 thoughts on “Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. Well, that’s exactly why I loved it. Because we know close to nothing about Anne/Agnes, O’Farrell could let her imagination run wild, and her approach (including the first person POV) was, to my mind, a stroke of genius – that being not why did he marry her, but why did she marry him! Oh well… we can’t agree on everything!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t get on very well with this book either. I found the Agnes/Anne name change irritating, as well as the total avoidance of using Shakespeare’s name. And I agree with you about books written in the present tense. They’ve become almost impossible to avoid, though!

    Liked by 1 person

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