“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

Yep, you are reading it right, it is “Hamnet” not Hamlet and the book is by Maggie O’Farrell and not Shakespeare. Although, the two of them are connected and intertwined. “Hamnet” is a critically acclaimed novel that was all over bookstores around last Christmas – I even gifted a copy to my mother-in-law! It is only now though that I had a chance to actually read it myself.

“Hamnet” centers around the life of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, his wife Agnes, and their two daughters in Stratford right around the time when Shakespeare was becoming a famous writer along with some flashbacks to how he was growing up, how he met his wife and the birth of his children. The story in a way intertwines the past and the future surrounding the death of Hamnet and how both Shakespeare and Agnes dealt with it.

I found the story interesting but I also found Maggie O’Farrell to be a good writer. I checked her out after I finished the book and I was not surprised that she studied literature. You can definitely see that she is familiar with different writing traditions – not only her writing was good, but it was also excellent for the style and ambiance of the book. Some elements in the story, for instance, included theatrical writing as if you were reading a place and I like how it alluded to Shakespeare. I love when the subject of the book is conveyed not only through characters but also through good writing and she definitely managed to accomplish it.

The characters I found both interesting but also deep, and complex. I needed to decipher them, to think about their motivations and behaviors, and again, this for me is a sign of good writing. Besides, although as the author mentions, the account of the story is mostly fictional with some roots in reality, I still found intriguing the life of Shakespeare’s family before he became famous. Here are some samples of writing that I enjoyed:

***

“She is slipping out of the space between his body and the shelves. She opens the door and the light beyond is dazzling, white, overwhelming. Then the door bangs behind her and he is alone, with the falcon, with the apples, with the smell of wood and autumn, and the dry, feathered meaty smell of the birth.”

***

“What is given may be taken away, any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in a blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”

***

“The baby gives a swift, shrugging movement, pressing a palm, a foot, a shoulder against the wall of skin. She places a hand there – a hand outside, next to the hand inside – as if nothing has changed, as if the world is just as it was.”

***

“To him, it is the best place to be, before a performance: the stage below him, the audience filling the circular hollow in a steady trickle, and the other players behind him, transforming themselves from men to sprites or princes or soldiers or ladies or monsters. It is the only place to be alone in such a crowd. He feels like a bird, above the ground, resting on nothing but air.”

***

Generally, I recommend this read. It is a fresh perspective on something we are used to referring to as “classic” and I enjoyed it.

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