My favourite to win this year’s Women’s Prize?
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
Publication Date: 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Page count: 372
This is the first Maggie O’Farrell I have read and I was immediately mesmerised by her writing style it’s poetic, descriptive and beautiful. Hamnet is not just beautifully written but it is also meticulously researched and unlike some of the other historical fiction I have read it is extremely accessible.
Hamnet tells the story of the death of Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son, the grief and heartbreak that follows and the writing of the play Hamlet four years later. As we know Hamnet will die from the outset, there is a strange sense of foreboding and tension. Although you know he will die, you desperately want O’Farrell to subvert history and let him live.
The narrative flicks backwards and forwards so you see a young jobless Shakespeare as he begins courting Agnes (Anne) Hathaway, we gain an insight into their marriage and watch as Shakespeare begins his career as a playwright in London. O’Farrell deploys an omniscient narrator so the reader gets a bird’s eye view of events. However, I feel that this did create a slight barrier between me and the characters, the reader is observing rather than getting a direct line to the characters thoughts or feelings.
The narrative primarily focuses on Agnes, so the reader is limited by what she sees and knows. So although we know Shakespeare’s work, as Agnes is illiterate and living in Stratford she really has next to no understanding of what her husband is up to in London. So we don’t see Shakespeare the playwright but Shakespeare the Latin tutor, the husband and the father. In fact, his name is not mentioned at all. So if you don’t have any prior knowledge of Shakespeare it really doesn’t matter.
If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s plays then there are elements of his plays reflected in the narrative that you will pick up on. For example, there are two warring families drawn together when their children fall in love as in Romeo and Juliet and the twins Hamnet and Judith play pranks on their relatives by switching clothes and assuming the identity of the other which is reminiscent of Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night.
O’Farrell does use some artistic licence in order to tell the story. For instance, she changes Shakespeare’s sisters’ names from Joan to Eliza so as not to get the reader confused by too many repeating names (maybe Hilary Mantel could take a leaf out of her book!). Furthermore, it is not actually known what Hamnet died of but in this case, O’Farrell attributes his death to the plague. In one quite experimental chapter, we even shadow the plague’s journey to Stratford by following the life-cycle of several fleas. Lastly, most readers will be familiar with Anne Hathaway as the name of Shakespeare’s wife but as O’Farrell explains, Anne and Agnes were often used interchangeably and Agnes’ own father referred to her as Agnes as opposed to Anne in his will.
Of the women’s prize shortlist, this is my favourite so far and I think it has a good chance of winning. It’s a 4.5 out of 5 stars from me!