“She sees how she, Agnes, must remain calm, steady, must make herself bigger in a way, to keep the house on an even keel, not to allow it to be taken over by this darkness, to square up to it, to shield Susanna from it, to seal off her own cracks, not to let it in.”~ Maggie O’Farrell
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Fiction, historical fiction
Published by: Knopf, 2020
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I’m planning to revisit this one someday.
Reviewed by: Indiana
This intricately written novel follows Shakespeare’s family as they face the severe loss of the young Hamnet, who dies during the Black Death and inspires “Hamlet.”
While the title is Hamnet and Shakespeare is certainly a main character, Agnes is the star of the show. She is an eccentric woman who some of the townspeople distrust because of her ability to see into people’s future and present by squeezing their hand. She’s also able to heal others using herbs, which makes some suspicious of her.
Yet, she is the stronghold of her family. She is the reason Shakespeare can escape his father’s glove business and make a living in London writing and performing plays. The bard is not exactly painted in a favorable light in this novel, he is at best a frustrated creative and at worst a cheating and clueless husband. But Agnes sticks with him, even when he stays in London for most of the year, and indeed it seems most of their marriage, while the rest of the family lives in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Beyond the layered family dynamics, there is an all-too engrossing (and gross) depiction of how the Black Death spread throughout Europe, starting with a tiny insect and spreading on ships and from port to port. It was disturbing, perhaps more so because it was published during a pandemic.
Hamnet is the sort of book where readers know what’s going to happen, yet the tale is so well told that they’re still surprised by the reveal. It was widely praised when it was released last year and from my experience it was deserving of the accolades.
Has anyone else read this one? If so, what did you think? How do you think reading it during the pandemic influenced your experience of it?