I should preface this review by saying that I read O’Farrell’s memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, a few years ago and it took my breath away. Or specifically, the closing pages took my breath away.
On the other hand, I have very little interest in Shakespeare and so the idea of reading a novel based on the short life and tragic death of his son circa 1596, didn’t appeal to me too much.
But the cover is gorgeous (yes, that’s often how I choose a book) and Hamnet won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, so I bit the bullet last week. I’m so glad I did. I shouldn’t have worried about the Shakespeare connection. At its core, this is a great story of a family thrown into turmoil by the unexpected death of a young boy named Hamnet.
Hamnet lives in a small house attached to his grandfather’s glove shop with his twin sister Judith, older sister Susanna, his mother Agnes, and his father -the aforementioned playwright. Their world revolves around the domestic ebb and flow of both households, Agnes’ passion for herbal healing, and the ominous tension between father and grandfather. This tension eventually drives the former to leave and seek better fortune for his family in London with Agnes and the children planning to follow.
O’Farrell’s narrative hops between the night before Hamnet’s death, the early years of his parents’ romance, and the days and years that follow the tragedy. Of those three parts, I feel the first two are the strongest. I loved the careful and detailed descriptions of young Agnes and Shakespeare.
I was hooked by Agnes’ background and fully committed to her future happiness! Maybe it’s because of this, the scenes of grief and suffering experienced by Hamnet’s family are so moving. The depiction of his final hours, the tender care administered, and the devastation that follows are heartbreaking.
I was so impressed by these two parts, that the third and final part – where Agnes travels to London to attend a performance of her husband’s new play, Hamlet – felt anti-climatic to me. I understand the symbolism and I can imagine the desired impact but I wasn’t invested in the story anymore at this stage. The novel had already packed its punch.
Don’t let that put you off though. It’s a great story, written well by an excellent author.