This is a hauntingly fantastic book. O’Farrell’s subtle integration of the tropes and symbolism of the original play Hamlet in her historical fiction Hamnet is original and pure genius.
The novel is named after Shakespeare’s son Hamnet who died young. He is rarely talked about and goes almost unrecorded. O’Farrell grabs at any bit of truth she can find and weaves a beautiful and heartbreaking story that will no doubt affect the way Shakespeare and his son are viewed in the future.
From the description, the reader knows Hamnet is going to die. O’Farrell reveals the major event of the novel and you find yourself asking what else can this book do beyond that? Hamnet dies with a hundred pages left and actually, he is not the main character either — his mother, Agnes, is. And I wasn’t complaining. I loved Agnes. O’Farrell integrated the witch trope common of the period but in a way that was natural and reclaiming the incredible nature of these women.
Hamnet is a novel driven by a very powerful female community. Shakespeare’s father even asks Hamnet why he hangs around with women so much — it was because his grandfather was abusive and his father absent. Shakespeare is never mentioned by name. He always belongs to someone. Father, brother, husband. He is almost stripped of all the power and status the world has given him over the past five hundred years and becomes a creation of these women.
The story shows the creation of Shakespeare the writer and one meaning possible meaning behind Hamlet. A play named after his son but so unlike his son’s story. But inside the subtleties of the play, the ghosts and family dynamics, Shakespeare allows his son to live on.
I think this book deserves five stars and more. It broke my heart. There are some beautiful family and love scenes and it’s full of wonderful descriptions — and I’m not one for descriptions! I have read criticism for this book saying it was distant and flat which I understand. A book named after someone with a potentially huge history behind him would make you think you were in for an adventure! But I don’t think that was O’Farrell’s intention. I think she wanted to strip Shakespeare back and present a family narrative that is common to us all. It’s a commentary on how fame can get in the way of a more meaningful and powerful story.
So if you haven’t read Hamnet already I urge you to do so — and buy a box of tissues with the book! And don’t worry if you haven’t read Shakespeare, he’s not that important!