20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Maggie O'Farrell, Publisher, Setting, Tinder Press

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 372 pages; 2020.

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, is one of those books you will have seen everywhere if you haven’t already read it yourself. It won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted — amongst many other awards and accolades — for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

As the title may suggest, it’s a fictionalised story about William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (a name that in the 16th century was regularly switched out with Hamlet), who died unexpectedly, aged 11, plunging his father (and family) into grief. (Though history has not recorded the cause of death, it’s widely believed to be the Bubonic Plague, which is what causes him to die in this novel.)

Initially, I found Hamnet completely gripping — the opening chapter is a very fine piece of writing, indeed, alive with rich descriptions, brilliant characterisations and a heart-thumping sense of urgency — but by the mid-way point my interest began to wane, and I really struggled to finish it.

No doubt you have probably read loads of positive reviews online, so let me briefly outline what I liked and didn’t like about this book.

Here’s what I liked about the story

The dual storylines: The novel is divided into two separate storylines, one of which recounts what happens when Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, falls ill from the Plague, and the second of which goes back in time to chart the romance between a young William “John” Shakespeare and the mysterious woman, Agnes, who would later become his wife. These two narrative threads are told in alternate chapters, which helps build suspense because just when you get to an exciting point in one storyline, it switches to another.

The characters: These are all richly drawn, from Shakespeare’s cruel, drunken father, to Agnes’ cruel, pessimistic stepmother Joan — and everyone in between. Perhaps the best-drawn character is Agnes herself. Much of the story is told through her eyes, so we get a real feel for her innermost thoughts, her undying love for her husband and the ways in which she’s viewed as an outsider by society at the time, purely because she’s an unconventional woman, very much in touch with nature, folklore and her own emotions.

The vivid descriptions: Despite some writerly quirks that annoyed me (see below), the prose is lavish and opulent, a style that lends itself well to historical fiction when scene-setting and period detail is so important. Sometimes O’Farrell can arrest your attention with a single beautiful line — “The hedgerows are constellations, studded with fire-red hips” — or an entire paragraph:

Balanced on the tops of the houses was a sky scattered with jewels, pierced with silver holes. He had whispered into her ear names and stories, his finger outstretched, pulling shapes and people and animals and families out of the stars.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the story

The present tense: I understand that present tense creates urgency and it’s quite unusual to be employed in historical fiction, but I found it very wearing to read more than 300 pages of it! The opening chapter, when Hamnet is desperate to get help for his ill sister, is riveting because of the present tense, but do we really need to read a whole novel as if the action is happening right now? It’s exhausting.

The rule of three: O’Farrell uses a prose pattern that once seen cannot be unseen. She has a penchant to compose sentences that employ three adjectives or three clauses to help prove a point and, I suspect, to make her writing feel more “rich” and “abundant”. But when every page is dotted with sentences structured in this way it becomes kind of annoying. Here is a couple of examples:

The smell, the sight, the colour took her back to a bed soaked red and a room of carnage, of violence, of appalling crimson.

And:

The hawking, honey-producing, ale-trading priest will marry them early the next day, in a ceremony arranged quickly, furtively, secretively.

Plot implausibility:  This is a tough one to write about because I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know, but basically, O’Farrell employs a readerly “trick” that is implausible. After devoting 70-plus pages to the prospect of young Judith dying from the plague, she survives, but at the very last minute, Hamnet dies instead. There’s also an entire chapter about how the flea, responsible for Judith’s illness, travels from Venice to London that just felt like it had been lifted from a fairytale and felt out of keeping with the rest of the novel.

My conclusion

I guess the best way I can sum up my feelings for Hamnet is ambivalence. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. I admired the concept of it but had issues with some of the delivery.

I felt a bit like this when I read O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, so am beginning to wonder whether she just isn’t the writer for me. Either that or I am reading her books at the “wrong” time or I am reading the “wrong” books by her.

I haven’t given up though — I’m now eying off her memoir, which has been sitting in my TBR for a few months and which would qualify as another #20booksofsummer read.

This is my 1st book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received this book as a Christmas gift from my friend Armen in London.

16 thoughts on “‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell”

  1. I felt much the same as you Kim. I didn’t love this one. I felt that the ending didn’t convince at all and thought it might have been a stronger novel had it not been about Shakespeare at all ( which sounds strange, I know).

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    1. Yes, that’s interesting idea, but I guess so much of the marketing has hung off the fact this is about Shakespeare that it would be a lot harder to attract publicity if it was about a ‘normal’ family 🤷🏻‍♀️

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  2. You’re right, I have mostly seen glowing reviews of this, so interesting to read a counterbalance of sorts! I read and really liked this one, and actually quite liked the rule of three thing because it felt like a pattern that worked to me, and often gave the descriptions depth. And the flea section was my favourite! But I’m with you on the present tense – I find it detracts from any reading experience.

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    1. You can keep your fleas, Simon. Lol 😂

      I don’t usually mind present tense but it’s so fashionable at the moment that it’s almost impossible (slight exaggeration but you get my drift) to pick up a contemporary novel that doesn’t use it. When you’ve read about five books in a row written in the present tense it begins to wear very thin indeed.

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  3. I have this on the shelf to read and was hoping it was going to be one of those guaranteed enjoyable reads, I’ll try not to focus on the flaws. I will say that I did really enjoy her memoir, I haven’t read any of her fiction, but the memoir had a pretty gripping opening and interesting structure, even if not all the 17 brushes carried the same weight as that first one.

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    1. Oh, it’s enjoyable and I’m sure you will like it a lot. In the grand scheme of things the bits I didn’t like aren’t deal breakers… it just meant instead of a four or five-star read I relegated this to a three-star read.

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  4. I’m with you in wishing the whole novel hadn’t been present tense. But I loved the book, especially the flea section and thought her characterisation of Agnes was superb.

    it’s going to be interesting to see what you make of her memoir. It sags a bit in the middle but I’d encourage you to press on because the final sections where she talks about her daughter’s medical issues are by far the best

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    1. I think 370 pages is too long to sustain present tense in this way but not everyone agrees.

      Thanks for the advice re: her memoir. I’ll bear it in mind should I decide to read it soonish.

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  5. I’m pleased to read another less than rave review. I gave up on this book after about the third or fourth Agnes chapter. I found them very annoying – wild herbal woman trope, living on the edge of society, wicked step mother, falling in love with the tutor – yadda yadda yadda (rule of 3 just for you!)
    But I did enjoy the beginning – the sense of urgency as Judith fell ill was palpable.

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    1. That’s a good point about the tropes / stereotypes. The more I think about it, the more I can see this book is very much a fairytale but that’s not how I went into it. I got bored with it, particularly the latter third. I think she has a tendency to explain how everyone is feeling and sometimes I think you just need to show it through action and then trust your reader enough to fill in the gaps. But I don’t think I am the target audience for this book…

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  6. Really interesting – I’ve never found O’Farrell to be as good at historical fiction as she is at contemporary fiction. I didn’t get on with Hamnet or Instructions for a Heatwave. But I’ve really loved much of her contemporary fiction, especially This Must Be The Place. Her memoir is also brilliant!

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    1. That’s an interesting observation. I remember reading her debut novel years and years ago (long before this blog) and loving it, but then I didn’t read her again until quite recently. I am looking forward to trying the memoir now.

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  7. Okay. Fair points. I didn’t mind the first person at all, as long as it is done well. I saw the three bit as a nod to iambic pentameter, so that didn’t bother me either (and I actually like the way it feels poetic). As for the bit with Judith’s illness vs Hamnet’s death… we already knew that it was Hamnet who died at that age, and not Judith, that’s just an historical fact. Maybe the buildup was a touch overdone, but it just was a mechanic that built up tension, which didn’t bother me at all. No matter. I get why you didn’t adore it like I did!

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    1. Thanks, Davida. I think the buildup to Hamnet’s death was really well done … I was furiously turning the pages wanting to know whether anyone was going to come to the twins rescue … but I think the author spoilt it by playing that trick on us and having us believe Judith was the one who was at risk of dying. But never mind. As I say in my review, I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t love it. I can completely understand why some people do adore it though… I guess we can’t all gush about the same books, right, or the book world would be a very predictable place indeed.

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      1. Well, we don’t know if Judith got sick before Hamnet died, so… she went the fictional route. And you’re right – we can’t all gush about the same books. My sister didn’t like Hamnet at ALL. Stopped reading it in the middle. No matter. I still love her!

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