Saturday 9 May 2020

Hist Fic Saturday ~ Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

On Hist Fic Saturday 

Let's go back to Stratford Upon Avon... 1596

Tinder Press
31 March 2020

My thanks to the publishers for my copy of this book

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O'Farrell's new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

What did I think about it..

Quietly observant, Hamnet creeps up on you, not with bells and whistles blowing, but with a considered and intimate view of life in Stratford upon Avon at the end of the sixteenth century. We know that we are living with William Shakespeare's family in their home on Henley Street. We hear the clatter of pots and pans in the cook house, we notice John Shakespeare's quick temper and even quicker fist, we wear our white aprons alongside William's mother, Mary, as she encourages her listless maid to stir the cooking pot, and we also climb the stairs with William's son, Hamnet as he discovers that the twin of his heart is mortally sick with a deadly disease.

I've read many historical fiction novels set during the time of the pestilence but I have never experienced so vivid an account of how the deadly flea hopped here and there on its fatal journey to Stratford upon Avon in 1596, or the heartbreaking task of a mother saying goodbye to her beloved child. Usually portrayed as something of a shadowy figure, always on the periphery of her more famous husband, Agnes is brought to life in a startlingly beautiful way, and this is very much her life, her story, her sadness. More than slightly fey, and with one foot always placed in another world that only she can see, Agnes looks to plants and nature, being more comfortable outside than sharing the house on Henley Street with her in-laws. And whilst she can fly a Kestrel, make a healing potion and see visions of the future, she cannot save her child. Her grief is palpable and her all consuming sadness is beyond anything she has experienced in any of her visions.

In all ways that count Hamnet is very much about the sadness of grief, the hopelessness of loss. It's about the poetry of a wordsmith who, taking his inspiration from his observations of the intricacies of life, is left bereft by grief, and of a mother and a sister who are diluted by loss.

With a breathtaking intimacy, Hamnet broke my heart into a million pieces whilst at the same time I was fully immersed in this place, with these people who came to mean so much. The authenticity of the author's writing is without question, beautifully written and delicately stage managed, there is a poignant lyricism to the language, sometimes sparse, sometimes languid, sometimes brutal in its honesty, but always compelling in its reach to draw the reader into its very heart and soul.

Without doubt one of my books of the year and fingers crossed that Hamnet gets the recognition it deserves in the prize winning stakes.

Postscript: 10 September -Delighted to announce that Hamnet has won the 2020 Women's Prize.

Maggie O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times no. 1 bestselling memoir I am, I am, I am, and eight novels: After You'd Gone, My Lover's Lover, The Distance Between Us, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand that First held Mine, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, Instructions for a Heatwave, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, This Must be the Place, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, and Hamnet which has been shortlisted for the 2020 #WomensPrize. She lives in Edinburgh.

Twitter @TinderPress #Hamnet


  1. This is such a brilliant book. She's an amazing writer and I'm sure she'll get awards for this. Such a shame that the current pandemic has meant no chance to see her at book festivals!

    1. I quite agree, Joanne. I watched her on TV on Friday (8th) chatting with Richard and Judy. Fingers crossed Hamnet wins several awards x


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