Reading the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

*Warning: There are spoilers in this one. Sorry but I just couldn’t help gushing about it*

As soon as I heard about Hamnet I wanted to read it. As someone who has loved Shakespeare’s plays since childhood just hearing that I could read a story written about the writer and his son sparked my excitement. So many people were talking about how good it was online. I sent out emails and tweets trying to get my hands on a proof copy and finally I got an e-book copy just a short time before publication… and I didn’t read it.

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

I was scared that I wouldn’t love it like so many reviewers already had. I felt this weight of everyone else’s love for this novel pushing against my back. Twitter was whispering “read it, just read it”, but I was worried that I was going to be that one person who hated it.

Then one not so special day in lockdown, I curled myself up on the sofa and started to read. Not since I first read The Handmaid’s Tale at 16 have I felt so stained by a book. The character’s inky fingerprints pressed in to my heart and chest as I read through the story. The world I was reading started sticking to me like mud splashed up from the mucky Stratford pastoral landscape. It is so easy to think that this is a book written to tell the story of Shakespeare losing his son but in truth it is much more than that.

Hamnet tells the story of a woman, her husband and their children. Agnes is the name that we come to know the playwright’s wife by and not Anne, the name that history popularises. Maggie O’Farrell used the name that Anne Hathaway’s father used for her in his will. Surely her father would have given the name his daughter was known by.

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Photo by Manic Quirk on Unsplash

We follow Agnes’ life growing up on the farm at the hands of a cruel step mother and an ambivalent father. Despite losing her biological mother at a young age she takes on so much of who she once was. She is a child of the earth and there is something almost of the witch about her. She meets a young Latin teacher who suffers at the fists of his abusive father. They fall in love much to their families’ mutual surprise. They start a life together. Their own family grows. Three children bless their home; Suzanne, Hamnet and Judith. As her husband pursues his dreams far away, Agnes knows she has built a happy home. However, all this is shattered when the shadow of death comes for her children. Their family life splinters and their existence is forever blotted by an unhappy mark.

It is in the telling of Agnes’ life that you learn to love her. She is a daughter who has seen and suffered so much yet stays true to her mother’s memory. She is the lover of a tortured artist who is beckoned by his creative demons to a big city that she will never live in. Agnes is her village’s cunning woman. She tends the sick with her mysterious understanding of herbs and the wild earth. She has strange ways that the town gossips about but this in a weird way also earns her some sort of respect. She is a mother who nurses, cares for, worries about, cheers for, inspires and embarrasses her children.

Maggie O’Farrell writes the challenge of womanhood in a way that is so vivid it gives the writing a tangible quality. You could almost brush your fingers across the callouses on Agnes’ hands as you reach out your own to reassure her at times. You want to usher away the people clamouring to interfere as she plunges in to childbirth. As a human being you know the pain of being powerless to help others who are struggling or suffering. We have all experienced that heartache of not being able to stand up for someone we feel isn’t being heard. As I read this book that was the emotion that was building itself in my chest. I wanted some sort of justice for what O’Farrell was putting this woman through.

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Photo by Tikkho Maciel on Unsplash

However, it is not just Agnes’ heartache that you experience. You view the world from other the character’s points of view. You get to see how incredible she is to her husband and his own disappointment in himself for feeling he is not good enough for her. O’Farrell lets you experience her mother-in-law and eldest daughter’s embarrassment in Agnes’ simple country ways from their perspective as civilized towns women. You see how her stepmother Joan sees her as manipulative and a weird wild thing. Then you get to see her through the eyes of her loving young twins, Judith and Hamnet. O’Farrell doesn’t so much paint a picture of Agnes but constructs a sculpture that is a tribute to the constantly shifting perception of a woman’s worth.

It is hard not to read this novel and wonder if little bits and pieces are placed throughout it as to hint to what might have inspired Shakespeare’s plays. Did the way he met his wife inspire his love stories? Were the witches inspired by his wife’s knowledge of the natural world or her supernatural aura? What inspired the tragedies? His legacy is as much a spectre to the text as it is for his family to live with.

The heart of the novel is the death of Hamnet. The story revolves around the moment that he is taken by the plague. The past of the characters build to it and the rest of the story that follows his passing is riddled with the cracks it causes. Grief seeps through the pages and in to the reader veins. You feel it rage like some long expected storm and then endure it ebbing away painfully slowly as the life of the family carries on.

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Photo by Matt Riches on Unsplash

There were two parts of the novel that I absolutely adored reading. The first was the birth of the twins. Just like the birth in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale the beauty of the moment is the feral humanity of it. The scene evokes a real visceral and emotional experience that I can’t stop thinking about. The second part was the journey of the flea from Alexandria to Stratford. I’m not usually a fan of having to know where the essence of evil comes from as explaining it can often feel bulky and unnatural in novel but I loved this. The story of the flea’s adventure was almost silently insidious. It was beautiful.

For me reading this story now with the world I am living in was hard. When each night the news broadcasts are filled with stories of people losing loved ones, the death of Hamnet can feel so very difficult to read. We all learn about the plague as children. Anyone who has ever enjoyed Shakespeare will know that the play houses were closed to stop it from spreading. You can’t help but compare then to now and worry about the loss of life or the suffering that is now going on throughout the world. It was so weird to think that one of the places I often walk out to as the weather becomes warmer is The Globe. I grab a take away drink and take a seat near the Thames to read a few pages of my book before I wander home. This is something a global pandemic is now stopping me from doing. It is all so surreal to read about it in the pages of a work of fiction based in a period of history that seems so long ago and experience something similar now.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a fantastic fictitious account of a family who experience the loss of a child. It is a masterpiece and I predict it will be a future literary classic.

Hamnet by Maggie 0’Farrell is nominated for the Women’s Prize for fiction 2020. Click here for more information.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press. Click here to grab yourself a copy.

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Thumbnail Credit: Photo by Liv Bruce on Unsplash

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