In brief: In sixteenth century England, a girl falls ill and her brother runs for help. What happens over the next week will shape a marriage and many lives.
The good: Some scenes are heartbreaking.
The not-so-good: Took some time to get into, particularly the movement from past to present and back again.
Why I chose it: Enjoyed Maggie O’Farrell’s novels previously. Thanks to Hachette for the copy.
Publisher: Tinder Press (Hachette)
Setting: Stratford and London, England
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
I received Hamnet in the mail just as Australia was going into lockdown, and like many people I couldn’t really get into reading for a while. This universally lauded novel has sat on my to be read pile for some time, waiting for a moment where I could read about the plague. This is a story about loss of a loved one, a playwright and marriage between two people who don’t really meet society’s norms.
We all know this is a story about William Shakespeare and his children, but Shakespeare is never named in this novel. (Or not that I can remember). I’m not sure why. For me it was slightly annoying for everyone else to be named but him. The story is told from two timelines – when Judith, twin of Hamnet and child of Agnes and the unnamed playwright falls sick and Agnes and the Latin tutor/child of Mary and John’s romance and marriage. In the first part, the chapters alternate between the two timelines and it is quite unsettling at first, as the story didn’t really fall into a rhythm for me. I felt disoriented and considered abandoning the book several times. It’s like reading the story from a distance through a fog – it just seemed too far away from the story to really get into it. While there is a lot of description of the setting, particularly the house that Agnes lives in, some characters (like the playwright) are more of an enigma. It’s hard to get a picture of him in your mind other than a will-o’-the-wisp. His father is a ‘bad man’, but other than being an abusive bully and having mysterious wool in the attic, it’s not fully explored. Sometimes I felt that the female characters were stereotyped, such as Mary, the playwright’s father. She puts up with everything her husband throws at her and is suspicious of Agnes and her herbal medicine. She’s your typical mother-in-law. Agnes too suffers from this – she’s the mysterious medicine woman with a shady past who none of the townspeople want to be friends with (but they all want her cures).
After Judith contracts the plague and Hamnet races around town looking for his family, the novel picked up occasionally for me. When Agnes loses one of her children, the scene is heartbreaking. The emotion is raw and spilling off the page. The descriptions of devastation and loss as a husband and wife don’t really know what to say to each other were fantastically written. The aftermath of the child’s death could have been shortened to keep up the momentum in an epilogue rather than drawn out. However, there is one great chapter that was unintentionally written for our times. It’s the description as to how Judith got the plague from across the seas and how many people became ill as it travelled to England. I wanted more of this clever writing. There just didn’t seem to be enough to maintain interest in the story overall.