Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

hamnet maggie ofarrell

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Categories: Historical Fiction

A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.

A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.

This is one of those books that are difficult for me to rate, and the more I think about it now that I’ve finished it some days ago, the more I find things I actually enjoyed. Maggie O’Farrell’s writing is beautiful, you can absolutely see how much effort she put into the craft, creating a world so detailed you feel like you’re in it. This gorgeous, atmospheric and rich world comes to life in every page and has at the same time almost the feel of a fairy tale, with a wild child main character, the evil stepmother, a forest and one character who’s possibly not really human (Rowan). However, the level of detail and the extent to which the craft seems to have been perfected to achieve the effect of a masterful writing felt incredibly overdone to me. It has several pages detailing, for example, how a flea lived in a monkey and it got all the way to Agnes’ home and infected her child with the plague. Pages! Of a flea travelling the world! The plot does not move forward for nearly 250 pages at all. You learn in the beginning that Judith has gotten the plague and from what you know of the synopsis or history, you know what happens in the end. So this book is not so much about the plot, but the journey, the writing, the character development and so on. I don’t particularly mind that the plot does not move at all, and I think for a reader who adores her writing style, this book will be a hard 5 stars, but I was exhausted by it.

To me, the writing did not come off as seamlessly incorporating the details of the character’s life and their world into the story. It all felt worked on and crafted to a point where I would see what the writer was trying to achieve, instead of just immersing myself in the story, and be very conscious of those writing choices and what I was supposed to be experiencing.

The Wild Child trope is normally a hit-or-miss for me, and it started off very much as a miss with Rowan and Agnes being so clearly odd characters that did not seem to try to blend in at all with the society they live in. While I understand that for Rowan (who seems to be more a forest creature than a human), for Agnes it felt a bit too much for most of the book – but that improves as we see the humanness in her, her flaws through her daughter’s eyes and her mistakes. The wildness in her is made more human throughout the book, which I appreciate. It gave the book an interesting magical realism feel (which I adored).

In the end what made it a 3-star reading for me, despite all the praise I can give to this book, is that I felt the entire time that I was reading it as a chore, and it never truly felt like something I wanted to pick up. It was like reading boring but relevant books in High School, that I had to interpret and think about what the author was trying to do here and there, instead of sitting down and enjoying the book. The dense, rich world building of Shakespeare’s England may work for some people, but it annoyed me.

I have the feeling that fans of Ken Follet’s books will actually like this one very much. It’s an interesting time in history, and it shows an interesting side of William Shakespeare through the lenses of the women in his life. A mixture of fairy tale elements and hints of magic inserted in such an interesting world, and such beautiful writing make for a unique book, and even if it’s not a book I loved, it’s a book I admired.

4 thoughts on “Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. Great review! I felt very similarly. I found it an enjoyable enough read, but I don’t think it’s remotely prize worthy. Like you said, the writing was “beautiful” but in a way that was so obviously laboured, and both the drawn out misdirection with Judith and the supposed revelation concerning the naming of the play at the end were so pointless. Call me harsh, but I really think the bulk of its success is rooted in people’s love of Shakespeare and the virus parallels 🙊👀 As a piece of historical fiction without those draws, it is hugely underwhelming.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I absolutely agree and I don’t think you’re being harsh! Yes it’s a good book and the writing is great if you enjoy the style. And yes, why drag on about Judith when the synopsis literally tells you she doesn’t die??

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 + the Winner Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell | Naty's Bookshelf

  3. Pingback: Women's Prize for Fiction 2020: Winner Announcement & Concluding Thoughts – Books and Bakes

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