For centuries, millions of people have loved all things Shakespeare. That said, record-keeping was more than a bit rubbish back then, so there’s much about his life we don’t know. Personally, I’ve always been particularly interested in the family he left behind. Who was Anne Hathaway, really? What happened to Hamnet, their only son? Fortunately for us, Maggie O’Farrell (I Am, I Am, I Am) asked the same questions.
Hamnet seeks to answer these questions in some of the most poetic prose I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Agnes (Anne) Hathaway was a woman known for her marriage to The Bard, but the book barely names him. I loved that inference was enough, as if speaking his name would somehow detract from her own story and make it reliant on him in some way.
Nevertheless, the husband’s story is given enough attention to make him complex and flawed, relatable even, in his melancholy and his restless need to break free from their small town and make his own way in the world. But the story is told from Agnes’s orbit; her perspective is what gives him importance, not the other way around. This book is about her childhood, her marriage, her life as a woman and a mother in a harsh world. And she is captivating.
“How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?” - Hamnet
Hamnet himself acts as the anchor around which the story turns. His death at the age of eleven threw the family off kilter and quite possibly inspired one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet, a tragedy about a prince who dies an untimely death. O’Farrell’s descriptions of grief were so heartfelt and devastating that I felt swept along and overwhelmed by it, in a way I’ve never quite experienced from a novel. I didn’t feel depressed, but I understood the loss deeply, a testament to the writer’s masterful hand with language. Hamnet’s death is only part of the book, however. There’s much more of the story to tell, and each page brought a fresh revelation of who the mysterious Anne Hathaway might have been.
O’Farrell uses what little information has survived about Agnes’s life and creates a full, complex character whose journey begins with one foot in folklore and the other in history. It follows her through her whirlwind meeting with and courtship of the greatest poet of all time, through her great loss, and on through to her fight for life, all on her own terms. I was thoroughly inspired by her. The craftsmanship of the book alone grabbed me, but Agnes’s story itself kept me reading into the small hours of the morning.
Throughout the book, I noticed that O’Farrell relies heavily on lengthy description, rather than simply stating what happens, and yet the text never feels heavy or overwrought. The pace of the novel is quick and its plot varies, jumping from Warwickshire to Alexandria, for example, to better tell the story of how the plague arrived in their small town from so far away. O’Farrell lingers just the right amount on each section, moving back and forth in time to tell Agnes’s story while using Hamnet as the framework for this masterpiece.
Rightfully shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, O’Farrell’s book contains evocative descriptions that drew me in and told the story of a woman whom history didn’t care to note. This book is an achingly beautiful story of love and loss, hope and grief, failure and redemption. It’s truly one of the most poignant novels I’ve read in a long time.