Review: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
This was a lovely, lovely book that still managed to somehow, sort of, leave me a bit with my hunger.
It was meant to explore the relationship between twins Judith and Hamnet Shakespeare and how a relationship between twins survives even when one of them dies (spoiler alert: Hamnet dies of plague about halfway through the book, but you should really already know that); but what the book ended up being about was Hamnet's mother, Agnes, and her relationship with her children, her husband, her stepmother, her brother, her family-in-law. In a way I'm happy that was the focal point - Agnes was way more of an interesting character than either of the twins were, and even though there was very, very little of anything about the relationship between the twins, there was a lot to sink your teeth into in the way Agnes relates to herself, and the world and the people around her.
First things first - I fucking love the idea of Shakespeare having been married and in love with a witch.
Because Agnes definitely has some kind of gift - the folklore woven into the novel is that her magic comes from her mother, who was a forest sprite; Agnes knows cures and gives birth in the forest and has the gift of premonition. She's also got the gift of easily reading other people, which seems so ironic for a playwright's wife; but I think Agnes's premonition and her medicinal cures were more fully executed than the 'seeing' (that always felt a bit plot-devicey, to me). And I think the character of Agnes is absolutely fascinating, especially the way Maggie O'Farrell presents her from so many different angles: first we meet her through the eyes of her son, who's searching for her because his sister is ill; then the eyes of the townsfolk, then her stepmother, then her husband, and only after everyone has had a chance to weigh in with their views of Agnes do we get to see the story from her point of view. The overlaying of narrators, the slipperiness of perspective, all piles on top of each other to make a lovely little origami of cycling POVs - also meaning that there is a layer of mystery at the very core of the novel, since we never quite get to solve the puzzle of who she actually is.
I think the way she played with Shakespeare's identity, too, was really interesting - throughout the novel, Shakespeare's identifying title is his current relationship to Agnes, so it shifts: first he's the Latin tutor, then he's the husband, then he's the father. I really like the way O'Farrell did that, upending the favored myth of Shakespeare as ladding it up in London away from his family, flipping it so that Shakespeare's only fixed point is his wife and children - in fact, his identifier is never, not once, 'the playwright'. And the fact that Shakespeare himself is never named in the novel, only appearing as some kind of mirage, allowing for so much of his myth to be built up even in the book itself - oh, my god, it was so meta and brilliantly, obviously, simplistically clever that it was just downright delicious. It was, however, a bit annoying that she decided to never name-check Will Shakespeare, even at the closing scene, when his wife is attending the opening performance of Hamlet. By that point, it's so obvious that she's purposefully withholding the name we all already know, it's pushing the cleverness just a bit beyond the realm of the plausible. But I know other reviewers have disagreed with me on that one, so that's my personal opinion more than any objective fact. I did very much enjoy, however, how Shakespeare is portrayed throughout as a bit of a useless fop, who spends his time writing and talking instead of doing anything valuable or helpful, and who's main contribution in an emergency is monologuing about the emergency instead of trying to solve it.
The language and writing throughout this novel, also, is almost pitch-perfect. O'Farrell has a lot of fun with some overtly Shakespearean themes, especially around unconventional marriages and twins doubling up and gender-bending, and makes them take root in the dreamlike, slightly mediative quality of her prose. This book feels like one that you should read under a tree whose leaves are gently rustling in the wind, and the imaginings of daily domesticity feel very grounded and immediately visible, while the famously historical person is never more than tangential - yet another neat little flipping of the traditional myth.
This is an absolutely lovely well-written book, with emotional scenes that pack a painful, painful punch: the description of Hamnet's death and Judith's reaction to it; the scene where Agnes is preparing her son's body for burial; the scene where she senses that her husband is being unfaithful. All of it hits you right where it hurts, and I am not ashamed to admit that I did cry. The only reason I'm not giving it five stars is because the title is a bit misleading - Hamnet is not about Hamnet at all, but rather about how his mother makes and remakes her life around her children and their absence.
Highly recommend - it would have been a shoo-in for the Booker longlist in another year.