Originally published: 31 March 2020
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Published by: Tinder Press
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 372 pages
Reading dates: 3-6 April 2020
Happy Easter! Today is the last day of the Hamnet blog tour. This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2020 and I was absolutely thrilled to be involved in the blog tour.
On a summer’s day in 1596 in Stratford-upon-Avon, a young girl Judith, takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother Hamnet searches everywhere for help but his older sister, grandmother and mother are no-where to be found. Their mother Agnes is over a mile away in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs, tending to her bees. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.
Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is the story of the bond between twins and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief.
It is always a bit scary to read a book you are anticipating so much because what if it doesn’t live up to your expectations? Thankfully, Hamnet delivered in every way! The books is about the family of Shakespeare – O’Farrell cleverly never mentions his name – he is the son, the tutor, the bridegroom, the father but he is never called William and the family name is never mentioned.
The first half of the book tells us of Judith feeling ill, of Hamnet’s desperate search for help. Alternating chapters tell us of how we got to this point – how the Latin tutor was teaching one day in Hewland Farm and spotted a mysterious woman with a kestrel on her arm. This woman is Agnes who lives on the farm with her stepmother, her brother and half siblings. The tutor and Agnes fall in love but Agnes has always had a reputation as a strange woman and the tutor is young so their families turn down the match. When Agnes falls pregnant (she knows what she is doing), the families must agree to their marriage.
Agnes is horrified to discover Judith’s illness, all the more when she realises it is the plague, and people rarely survive it. She treats her with all the medical treatments and remedies she knows, but she falls asleep exhausted. She wakes to find Judith weak but recovering and Hamnet desperately ill instead.
The emotion that poured from these pages was intense – because the illness and it’s progression took up so much of the book, interspersed with their earlier lives in made it so much more powerful. The grief felt, especially by Agnes was extraordinary – despite knowing from the blurb of the book that one of the children dies, it is still a heart stopping moment when it happens. The father is sent for as soon as they are aware how serious the situation is but it is Agnes whose despair and grief and overwhelming sadness we feel.
I admired the research that had gone into this book. I knew little about Shakespeare apart from the bare minimum I learnt a long time ago at school and knew nothing about his family. This book isn’t an accurate historical piece, but a retelling of what O’Farrell imagines might have happened. The historical accuracy I’m sure is spot on – it feels like a lot of research went into this book – I felt completely immersed in the 16th century – from the food, to the smells and the whole way of life. I’ve read some books where the author has done a lot of research and we as the reader can really tell – they feel the need to squeeze in everything they have researched. Hamnet is not like that at all. The skill O’Farrell has a writer is that her writing feels effortless.
It is at times like this I wish I was a more eloquent reviewer. I adored this book. I think it is quite possibly going into my top 10 of all time. An absolutely stunning read filled with emotion – historical fiction at it’s very best.
Thank you to Anne Cater for inviting me on the tour and to Tinder Press for the gifted copy! Take a look at the other great bloggers below.
I was lucky enough to join a live chat with Maggie O’Farrell and the lovely ladies from @IAmInPrint and it was a real joy! O’Farrell is an author I would love to hear speak in real life so this was just brilliant – she spoke at length about the book and her research and she laughs…a lot.
About the author:
Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and grew up in Wales and Scotland.
She has worked as a journalist, both in Hong Kong and as the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. She has also taught creative writing.
O’Farrell is married to fellow novelist William Sutcliffe, whom she met at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. They now live together in Edinburgh, with their three children.