The Newgen Book Club chose to read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet in April. We seem to be collecting winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (and I’m excited for July, to see who the 2021 winner will be)! Hamnet has been incredibly popular and critically acclaimed since its release last year, so our group were looking forward to reading it.
Hamnet is a story about love, life, death and, above all, what comes after death for those still living. Facing one of the worst losses, in the death of a child. This is presented very early on in the book (even on the back cover), so the reader knows that the story is not going to be light. It’s to the author’s credit that there is levity sprinkled through some very dark material – facilitated through much of the book by the interweaving of two very different timelines.
The portrayal of a grieving mother is incredibly powerful, well-written and compelling reading. However, our group had mixed reactions upon reaching the end of the story. Almost in a nod to O’Farrell, I haven’t yet mentioned that the family she writes about is that of William and Agnes Shakespeare. This is overtly referenced, throughout the book, but is never acknowledged by name – something that often feels incredibly affected. Neither ‘William’ nor ‘Shakespeare’ are ever written, and the efforts to avoid mentioning William by name (‘the husband’, ‘the brother’, ‘the playwright’, etc.) often seem obtuse. We certainly know who the author is talking about! By not mentioning his name, in an effort to make the book about his wife, he almost becomes a much more powerful presence than I assume is intended.
It’s almost as though the author wanted to write Agnes’ story, alone, but almost needed a hook to ‘get people in the door’. That hook was Shakespeare, but perhaps it wasn’t needed. I would have been interested to read a story about Agnes as a woman and a grieving mother without a famous husband, where her story was allowed to be her own.