By Maggie O’Farrell
Vintage, 9781984898876, May 2021, 320pp.
The Short of It:
Did you know that Hamnet and Hamlet are one in the same?
The Rest of It:
Maggie O’Farrell wanted to give a voice to the boy we knew so little about. Hamnet, the son of William Shakespeare, who died at the age of eleven. The thing is, there is no record of Hamnet’s cause of death, anywhere. His death is believed to be caused by the plague, but no where is this confirmed. In O’Farrell’s novel, the way Hamnet dies is quite different from what you’d expect. Cracking open that first page of a book titled HAMNET, and especially since the author wanted nothing more than to give a voice to this boy, you’d expect the story to be all about Hamnet, but instead, it’s about his mother, Agnes and really motherhood in general.
As I was reading this book, I fell into the flow of the writing. It seemed poetic to me. I lingered here and there because of how melodious the words were as they rolled off the page. This was, dare I say it, a pleasant read even though it’s about death, the plague, and grief.
Telling us about Hamnet, through the grief of his mother was an interesting choice. Powerful at times, but there was a tiny touch of magical realism (in my opinion) that took me out of the narrative for a minute and I was left reading that section over and over again to make sense of it and to consider why the author chose to go that route.
We discussed this for my book club. I’d say that most liked it a lot, some loved it, a couple weren’t impressed. I loved the writing but honestly, I expected more of Hamnet and his famous father. William Shakespeare is never named in the story. He’s the boy’s father, the Latin tutor, and eventually the playwright. It’s not until the very end that you are even introduced to his craft. I will say that the ending was quite thoughtful and a touch sad.
This is a book that will stay with me, even though it left me wanting more.
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