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.