Book review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is one of those rare books that successfully and with quietly devastating effect takes you deep into the life of an historical figure and brings them into life with a vivacity so palpable you feel as if you known them as well as your own friends.

The person in question is Anne Hathaway, wife of the Bard, William Shakespeare, a woman about whom little is known beyond some scant details but whose imagined story, in O’Farrell’s exquisitely talented hands, is the the thing of which wondrous tales are made.

What makes Hamnet stand out as an historical biography of sorts is the way in which the author takes away the usual remove that accompanies stories of people who well and truly predate us and takes deeply and truly and with great simmering emotion into Hathaway’s life.

Also referred to as Agnes, a name that O’Farrell adopts throughout the book to refer to this remarkable woman, Shakespeare’s wife is a formidable woman in her own right, someone who is an accomplished healer, a fiercely loving wife and sister and someone who endures a great deal but persists even so.

And importantly, given the title of the book, she is the devoted mother of Hamnet, her son, the brother to Susanna and his twin Judith, who, rejected by her own stepmother and long-mourning the death of her own mother, has gone to great lengths to give her children the maternal care she was denied.

“And Hamnet? He is re-entering the narrow house, built in a gap, a vacancy. He is sure, now, that other people will be back. He and Judith will no longer be alone. There will be someone here now who will know what to do, someone to assume change of this, someone who will tell him that all is well. He steps in, letting the door swing closed behind him. he calls, to say he is back, he is home. He pauses, waiting for an answer, but there is nothing: only silence.” P. 27)

What emerges from this portrait of Agnes Hathaway is what an utterly unusual woman she is for her time.

Unconcerned with the gossip mill of Stratford-Upon-Avon in a way that marks her as distinctly different from her neighbours, and practising a craft that marks her out, even to her own mother-in-law Mary, as someone odd – her eccentricities are often dismissed, rather patronisingly, as the product of her farm upbringing and her predisposition for the natural world over its urban counterpart – Agnes is a woman apart, someone for whom individuality, in a time of societal conformity, is not a detracting quality but a highly-valued positive.

It is no surprise of course that Shakespeare, himself a man apart from his glove-making family whose talents, quite obviously, lay in more creative areas, chose Agnes above all others, and that, just as importantly chose him.

She says at one point in the slowly-unfurling narrative, which moves with considered thoughtfulness but also with an immense emotional power at its core, that she picked Shakespeare as her husband because of the possibilities he contained and where she knew he would take his life.

Maggie O’Farrell (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

The first part of Hament then is about two outlier souls finding each other, two people who may not have found a home in their own families, at least when it came to their respective sets of parents, with siblings a whole other matter (there relationships were largely good) but are very much at home with each other.

That is, until life in its cold, cruel callous way intervenes and Agnes and William, separated by four days of travel through the unpredictable English countryside, must deal with deal with a grief like no other – the loss of a child.

This is clearly spelt out on the back cover blurb so is in no way a spoiler, but what is a revelation, in its telling and in the immensity of the emotions it encompasses, with O’Farrell bringing a revelatory amount of what feels like empathetic understanding to her storytelling.

The grief is so pronounced because Agnes’ whole world is bound up in her small, secure world, and Hamnet, who gave his name to one of Shakespeare’s most iconic works, is its centre in many ways, a bright, garrulous young boy who may now largely be lost to history but who in his day was the centre of his mother’s world (along with his much-loved sisters).

Hamnet, quite apart from being a sensitively written exploration of one boy and his mother, is a deep dive into the way grief can distort your life, your sense of place and contentment in the world, and shake your sense of what life will deliver to you.

“Anges lifts her head and her face is visible for a moment, beneath her cap. She smiles, her most enigmatic, maddening smile, and Mary feels a falling in her chest, sees her mistake, sees that Agnes is never going to side with her.

‘I see no reason,’ Agnes says, in her light, fluting voice, ‘to keep him against his will.'” (P. 207)

This is very much the case with Agnes, a woman who, since she was a little girl, has possessed an unerring ability to sense what was going to happen to her and those around her.

When her child dies, and both Judith and Hamnet fall ill at around the same time, Agnes sense of security in her unique gifts is shattered, along with her surety in her marriage, her profession and her role as a mother.

If you have ever experienced the emotionally excoriating hellscape of grief, you will find much in Hamnet that you recognise, with the novel, which is told with quiet passion and an eye for characters rich in authentic humanity, infused with the way in which grief can challenge everything which you hold most dear.

O’Farrell, who has a gift for drawing out the richness and truth of her characters, is in superlative form here, delivering us the story of one woman and her son and the world they inhabited that is moving and nuanced, allowed to unfold in its own good time.

Much of the story isn’t hurried nor overplayed; O’Farrell is content to let the back and forth of everyday life, which always has its roots in the profound changes that happen throughout all our lives, making Hamnet that rare book that possesses immense, affecting emotional power told in the quiet whisper of the small moments of life which is when, if you’re paying attention, when the most seismic of things happen to us.

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