The cover of this book is so stunning that despite the novel winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I wondered if the content could live up to the exterior. Naturally, this turned out to be a completely unfounded fear. The novel is based on the short life of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, but focuses on the playwright’s wife Agnes (more commonly known as Anne Hathaway). Shakespeare himself is unnamed throughout the book. It’s an incredibly heartbreaking story of grief, loss, and mourning.
The world O’Farrell constructs is uniquely bewitching, entwining the earthiness of 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon with Agnes’ ethereality. The author’s immersive language recalls the era the book is set in, but avoids being dull or stodgy. Instead, it has a poetic clarity, skilfully binding the plot together and inviting the reader to follow. The plot itself is not fast-paced; the focus is on the emotions of Hamnet’s mother, his twin Judith, and even – before his death – his own.
The book jumps between two points in time. One is Agnes and Shakespeare’s meeting and marriage. The other is Hamnet’s death and its aftermath. The hope of the earlier story contrasted against the anguish of the latter is almost unbearable to read. Agnes is the antithesis to her bookish husband, her world rooted in plants, herbs, and animals. She possesses unusual insight and intuition. But Death throws red herrings in her path, evades her sixth sense, and steals her son away.
I didn’t anticipate how thoroughly this book would rip my heart out. O’Farrell dives into the pain of loss and pulls the reader under the surface with her. I would recommend Hamnet to absolutely everyone, but be warned: it is not light reading.