Another one for the ‘prizewinning novels that everyone loves but me’ category, methinks. I thought Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir was brilliant and it has a permanent place on my shelf. I’ve had mixed experiences with her novels and so I wasn’t overly eager to read the latest, even though it did win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020. I do occasionally like to read historical fiction and this one being set within Shakespeare’s family had an appeal.
The story is named after Hamnet, a twin who died at a young age and whose father went on to write one of the most famous plays, Hamlet. The main protagonist of the novel is his mother Agnes, an unusual woman who has a strong affinity with nature and even has some witch-like qualities. Going back and forth between the present time of the tale (beginning with Hamnet finding that his sister Judith is sick) and Agnes’ life story, the novel is a portrait of motherhood, grief and what it meant to be a woman in that era.
The historical details are very impressive. It never feels like you’re being lectured on history (which is always a hazard), the characters’ emotions and relationships are the focus. I can understand why the book has really swept readers away.
Here’s what I didn’t like about the book. Firstly, the unsentimental attitude towards animals is upsetting and although I understand this enhances the realism of an historical novel, this topic is an automatic turn-off for me. Secondly, there is no mention of William Shakespeare or even the family name of Shakespeare at all. Perhaps the intention is to distance ourselves from the reputation of the great playwright and instead look at the women and children. Yet it seemed so deliberate as to be pretentious. Thirdly, the midway point of the book in which it is described in detail how some plague-carrying fleas travel around is tedious. That’s when I started skim-reading. Lastly, the writing style is frustratingly over-written. If there are several ways to say something, you can be sure they will all be included. I felt the desire to get a pencil and cross through the redundant words and phrases, although of course I didn’t. It was a library book.
In summary, Hamnet is not my cup of ale.
First published in 2020.