Hamnet; one of the best books I have ever read

Hamnet is Maggie O’Farrell’s heart wrenching interpretation of love, loss and family tragedy. It is about a real life boy who history has forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the greatest literary masterpiece’s of all time – Hamlet.

As an English graduate, I’ve read and studied a fair amount of Shakespeare in my time, with Hamlet being one of my favourite plays. Yet like many people, I never knew that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet who died aged 11. Hamlet was written a few years after Hamnet’s death.

Since studying Hamlet at school over 30 years ago, Maggie O’Farrell has always been ‘struck by the curious, sad symmetry of these names. What did it mean for a father to name a tragic hero after his dead son? What was the unusual act telling us?

Through O’Farrell’s evocative, piercing literary exploration I feel that she skilfully answers that heartbreaking question for us. Hamnet is a stunning read that cannot be forgotten; it is one of the most beautifully profound books I have ever read.

Written mainly from the point of view of Shakespeare’s wife Agnes (known in history as Anne Hathaway), the novel tenderly explores the love match between Shakespeare and Agnes who was eight years his senior. It portrays how their love for each other gave them strength after both experiencing unhappy childhoods, and how they shared that love with their children. It also portrays how their grief at loosing Hamnet tore them apart.

Hamnet is a poignant reimagining of a period in Shakespeare’s life that we do not know much about. Yes, although Shakespeare is forever present in the book, skillfully he is not the focal point. In fact Shakespeare’s name is never once referred to in the narrative; rather he is always referred to as the tutor, the father or the husband. It is Agnes; wild, spirited and loyal and frequently named in the narrative that is the epicentre of this beautiful book. I absolutely adore O’Farrell’s depiction of Agnes; she is a true heroine.

Hamnet is also about the loving, enduring bond between twins. The relationship between Hamnet and his twin sister Judith is tenderly explored from both their points of view. It is equally beautiful and heartbreaking.

Yet through O’Farrell’s haunting, almost lyrical manner, in addition to her tender portrayal of his wife and children, Shakespeare’s grief and vulnerabilities are poignantly revealed to us.

Hamnet is a book that captivated me and tore deep into my heart. Published very soon (31st March 2020) I urge you all to read it. Why? Because just as Hamlet is a literary masterpiece, so is Hamnet; one that cannot be forgotten.

A massive thank you to Georgina Moore for my advance copy of Hamnet – I savoured every word of this haunting, reimagined historical portrayal.

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