#20BooksofSummer No. 5 – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never been one to NOT read reviews about a book just because I haven’t read it yet. On the contrary, I like to read both positive and negative reviews and then plunge right in, hopefully without bias, and make up my own mind. In the case of Hamnet, I’d been hearing lots of praise about the evocative language and the refreshing perspective of the Bard from the point of view of his family. But I’ve also heard some of my favourite bloggers such as Eric from Lonesome Reader or Rebecca Foster at Bookish Beck that it falls short, either in terms of Maggie O’Farrell’s other work or compared to other recent historical fiction such as Hilary Mantel’s.

So let me lay out my wares perfectly candidly. I really enjoyed the book, but I haven’t read any other novels by Maggie O’Farrell, nor do I read much historical fiction in general. So perhaps I am not best placed to make these comparisons. Although I do have some reservations about the present tense and jarringly modern language at times, I allowed myself to be swept away by the beauty of the sentences, the appeal to the senses, and the way the author conjures up the atmosphere of village life in the late 16th century. I should also add that I was reading it while I was battling migraine and nausea, so I felt I was there in the sick-bed with Judith and Hamnet. Last but not least, I am such a Shakespeare fan, so I enjoyed this additional insight into how other people might have viewed him.

I allowed myself to be swept along in a current of emotion and drama, as a mother wanting to protect her children, as a wife who has grown apart from her husband, as someone who felt stifled by family and small-town life, as someone living through a pandemic currently. On that visceral level the book works extremely well. If I stop to analyse it too carefully, I might find some repetitions and flaws, perhaps an over-emphasis on description and manipulation of our sorrow gland. I might find that there is no real analysis of Shakespeare’s psychology, little hint of his depth in how he handles the grief at the loss of his son. But, as Agnes finds out when she goes to London to watch the play named after her dead son, there is a chasm between life as it is lived and life as it is portrayed in the arts.

As she rode to London, she had thought that perhaps now she might understand his distance, his silence, since their son’s death. She has the sense now that there is nothing in her husband’s heart to understand. It is filled only with this: a wooden stage, declaiming players, memorised speeches, adoring crowds, costumed fools. She has been chasing a phantasm, a will-o’-the-wisp all this time.

This is clearly a book that Maggie O’Farrell has wanted to write for a long time, a subject that she has been obsessed with. I really enjoyed hearing her talk about it as part of the online Hay Festival. It really worked for me, since I am probably equally obsessed with the topic, and I don’t regret getting a Waterstones signed edition hardback. It’s a keeper for me. But for those who tell me that I should read her other novels, that they are better, I wonder if sometimes when you feel too strongly about something, you cannot fully capture what you really want.

13 thoughts on “#20BooksofSummer No. 5 – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell”

  1. I don’t read historical fiction either, but I do enjoy Maggie O’ Farrell’s novels, so when I saw signed copies on a bookshop website, I had to buy one! It is currently sitting on my TBR shelf as I’m reading lots of other novels pertinent to my course. I will get around to this one eventually!

  2. I’ve been hearing great things about this one, too, Marina Sofia, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Interesting point you make about the sometimes too-modern language. But still, it sounds like a well-crafted story, and I like a good historical fiction novel when it’s well done. Hmmm… this one definitely stays on my ‘I’m interested’ list…

    1. Yes, I think it’s worth reading. I don’t know if it’s a prize winner for the Women’s Fiction Prize here in the UK, especially when there are other great books by Hilary Mantel and Bernardine Evaristo on the shortlist.

  3. Very honest response, Marina. Sometimes the content of a book is something we have to read, even if there are flaws – and with your love of Shakespeare I can understand why. This is a book which certainly seems to divide opinions and I suspect it’s not for me, particularly if there are too many modernisms in what is a historical setting. But I’m glad you enjoyed uit!

  4. I think you were best placed to read this with an open mind. I’ve enjoyed most, but not all, of O’Farrell’s previous novels for her nifty use of dual narrative but this one didn’t appeal. I suspect it’s not for me but, like Kaggsy, i’m glad you enjoyed it.

  5. I agree with Susan — the fact that you didn’t have particular expectations was really important. I’m so glad you enjoyed this! I found it to be the weakest of her books, but I’m happy to have people disagree with me, and I’d even be happy for it to win the Women’s Prize simply because O’Farrell is so wonderful and has often been overlooked by prize lists.

  6. I quite like O’Farrell’s work but this one disappointed me. I felt that the Shakespeare link added little to the story and disliked the ending. The writing is beautiful in parts though.

  7. I enjoyed Hamnet, though I think it has been over hyped and for me it isn’t a prize winner. I have read a few other O’Farrell novels, they were OK, but this one will stay with me better I think. I do think the historical feeling you get from her is not as good as Hilary Mantel, but then Mantel is probably better than most.

  8. Wonderful review, Marina! I haven’t read Hamnet yet, but I saw reviewers and bloggers raving about it. Recently I watched a movie called ‘All is True’. It is about Shakespeare moving back to his hometown after the Globe theatre burns down and how he tries to live a retired life while also grieving for his son Hamnet. I liked that movie very much. I have read one book by Maggie O’Farrell, her first, called ‘After You’d Gone’. I loved that. I want to read ‘Hamnet’ now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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