Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

To some extent I’ve been putting off writing about Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. What do you say that the hype surrounding the book hasn’t already said? When if it hasn’t quite won every prize going, it’s certainly been shortlisted for it?

In truth, even though I’d asked my partner to buy me the book for my birthday in December, I’d put off reading it until this month unsure, having lost one of my own twins, how well I’d cope with a novel about another woman losing one of hers, even after six years.

In the end, I needn’t have worried about this. Although Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is anchored by the death of Shakespeare’s son, exploring the family’s grief in the aftermath of Hamnet’s death, this is a novel about life, not death. Maggie O’Farrell gives life and character to the shadowy family that history has left behind in Stratford. For once, William Shakespeare isn’t named, the Latin’ tutor, the glovemaker’s son, he is the distant figure and the myth is woven instead around his family. Calling it a domestic drama doesn’t do it justice, but it’s undeniable that in Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell’s prose elevates the forgotten incidents of the lives of Elizabethan women to poetry, writing lovingly and with heart about birthing and raising children, about carving out your own destiny in a society which at best will only ever see you as second class.  

It’s a beautiful novel, but as a portrait of a family’s shifting relationships following a bereavement, and a couple struggling to relate to each other in the wake of it, it’s completely breath-taking.

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