Updated: Jun 15, 2021
William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet four years after his son Hamnet died at the age of eleven. Hamnet and Hamlet are the same name.
Now I will admit that before I read this novel, I did not even know Shakespeare had a son, let alone that he tragically died at the age of eleven. Yes, to say my knowledge of Shakespeare was rudimentary would be a compliment. However, I believe you don’t have to know anything about Shakespeare, who he was, his life, his family, to enjoy this novel.
“Enjoy” may seem to be an inappropriate verb to use with this novel. This novel is gut wrenching. It will tear your heart into millions of little pieces, detritus from a narrative that has the power to break your soul.
As it says in the synopsis, Shakespeare’s son died in 1956 at the age of eleven. Yet the novel is not about Hamnet or his death, it is about grief. Grief, and the way it rips and tears apart lives, changing them forever. Grief and how a Mother, a Father, a family deal with it.
The heart of the novel may be about the grief and how it changes the parent’s lives forever, but there is also a wonderful story that O’Farrell has constructed around this heart.
The novel opens with Hamnet coming down a stairway to be greeted with an empty house. He leaves the house to enter his grandparent’s house. To his right his grandfather’s workshop is empty. To his left a dining hall also empty. Silence is his only answer when he calls out. Where is everybody? Even after calling out the names of everybody who reside in the house his cries go unheeded.
A noise breaks him from a daydream he had entered unknowingly, and he realises he has entered his grandfather’s workshop. A workshop that for Hamnet is out of bounds. He retreats, hearing a noise in the parlour and finally finds his grandfather, who he accidently startles. His grandfather has been drinking and angrily admonishes Hamnet. His father’s words run through his head, “Stay away from your grandfather when he is in one of his black humours”.
So, only a few pages into the book and alarm bells start ringing in the back of the reader’s mind. You can almost feel what is going to happen next before your eyes even read the words.
His father’s fears and warnings prove justified when his grandfather clouts him across the head with his cup. Shouting at him that the blow was for creeping up on him. Again, the reader already knows from this terrible and sudden act of violence what type of man the grandfather is.
We learn that Hamnet’s twin sister Judith is desperately ill and her illness is why Hamnet has been looking for somebody to help.
This part of the novel takes part in the present. the next chapter will return to the past before Shakespeare, who is never named in the novel, is yet to wed Agnes, Hamnet’s mother. This structure is used for the entirety of the novel alternating back and forth between past and present.
Both parts of the novel, past and present are extremely interesting. There are touches of magical realism with Agnes being portrayed as having the power to see the future and spirits. And her extensive knowledge and use of herbs and tinctures enhances people’s perception that she is a bit of a witch.
The chapters that take place in the past are used to build Agnes and Shakespeare’s history, but they also tell the story of the plague and O’farrell’s idea of how this pestilence was transferred to Judith.
The chapters that take place in the present are almost exclusively used to describe the incredible, indelible pain that the parents are going through and how they manage, or perhaps fail to manage with it.
O’farrell’s prose is stunning and poetic. The passages used to describe Agnes’ grief and spiral into desolation are some of the best I have read in quite a while.
What O’farrell does with the play “Hamlet”, and why Shakespeare has written it the way he has, concludes the book in, although tremendously sorrowful and heartbreaking, a brilliant ending.
Make no mistake, this is a novel steeped in misery and melancholy, but one that is beautifully, almost poetically written. 5 Stars!
Maggie O'Farrell (born 1972, Coleraine Northern Ireland) is a British author of contemporary fiction, who features in Waterstones' 25 Authors for the Future. It is possible to identify several common themes in her novels - the relationship between sisters is one, another is loss and the psychological impact of those losses on the lives of her characters.