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Summary and book reviews of Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell X
Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
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  • Published:
    Jul 2020, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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About this Book

Book Summary

England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young, alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.

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.

Excerpt
Hamnet

A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.

The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding himself along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.

Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor.

It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light. The sun glowers at him from outside, the windows latticed slabs of yellow, set into the plaster.

He gets up, rubbing his legs. He looks one way, up the stairs; he looks the other, unable to decide which way he should turn.

The room is empty, the fire ruminating in its grate, orange embers below soft, spiralling smoke. His injured kneecaps throb in time with his heartbeat. He stands with one hand resting on the latch of the door to the stairs, the scuffed leather tip of ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The first two-thirds of the novel are split into a dual timeline, bouncing back and forth between the week of Hamnet's death (the present), and the blossoming romance between William and Agnes (the past). It's a tender yet fraught courtship, and the pacing here is slow and deliberate. The final third speeds up and takes place after the death of their son. Both parts are equally as successful — the languid pace is sustained by O'Farrell's lyrical prose, and the more frantic pace is made tense and urgent by it. O'Farrell imagines the subtler influences of Agnes and Hamnet on Shakespeare in a novel that's as intimate and human as it is grandiose...continued

Full Review (666 words).

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(Reviewed by Rachel Hullett).

Media Reviews

New York Times
This novel is at once about the transfiguration of life into art — it is O’Farrell’s extended speculation on how Hamnet’s death might have fueled the creation of one of his father’s greatest plays — and at the same time, it is a master class in how she, herself, does it...There is a poetic cadence to her writing and a lushness in her descriptions of the natural world.

NPR
"A tour de force...Although more than 400 years have unspooled since Hamnet Shakespeare's death, the story O'Farrell weaves in this moving novel is timeless and ever-relevant... O'Farrell brilliantly turns to historical fiction to confront a parent's worst nightmare: the death of a child...Fierce emotions and lyrical prose are what we've come to expect of O'Farrell. But with this historical novel she has expanded her repertoire, enriching her narrative with atmospheric details of the sights, smells, and relentless daily toil involved in running a household in Elizabethan England...Although more than 400 years have unspooled since Hamnet Shakespeare's death, the story O'Farrell weaves in this moving novel is timeless and ever-relevant.

Washington Post
Hamnet [is] told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse...O’Farrell makes no effort to lard her pages with intimations of [Shakespeare's] genius or cute allusions to his plays. Instead, through the alchemy of her own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage...This is a richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A]n outstanding masterpiece of Shakespearean apocrypha...The book is filled with astonishing, timely passages, such as the plague's journey to Stratford via a monkey's flea from Alexandria. This is historical fiction at its best.

Booklist (starred review)
This striking, painfully lovely novel captures the very nature of grief.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Imagining the life of the family Shakespeare left behind in Stratford makes an intriguing change of pace for a veteran storyteller...A gripping drama of the conflict between love and destiny.

Author Blurb Emma Donoghue, author of Room
What could be more common, over centuries and continents, than the death of a child - and yet Maggie O'Farrell, with her flawless sentences and furious heart, somehow makes it new. This story of remarkable people bereft of their boy will leave you shaking with loss but also the love from which family is spun.

Author Blurb Sarah Moss, author of Ghost Wall
Grief and loss so finely written I could hardly bear to read it.

Author Blurb Dominic Dromgoole, author of Hamlet, Globe to Globe
I don't know how anyone could fail to love this book. It is a marvel: a great work of imaginative recreation and a great story. It is also a moral achievement to have transformed that young child from being a literary footnote into someone so tenderly alive that part of you wishes he had survived and Hamlet never been written.

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Beyond the Book

Anne Hathaway and Hamnet Shakespeare

Painting of Anne HathawayLittle is known about Shakespeare's family, names and birth dates aside — and even names are tricky. Though commonly referred to as Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife may have actually been named Agnes, according to a will left by her father. O'Farrell makes the decision to use the name Agnes in her novel Hamnet, but she references this confusion in the narrative itself, in a scene where she introduces herself as Agnes but Shakespeare mishears her and thinks she said Anne.

The real Agnes, or Anne, was born in 1556, likely in a town called Shottery near Stratford, and was raised by father Richard, a local landowner, and stepmother Joan in a one-story farmhouse called Hewley Farm. There were eight children in their home, three by Anne...

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