Friday, 17 July 2020


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Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell    {Reviewed by STELLA}
This evocative, heart-breaking and revealing story of grief lays bare the genesis of Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet. Yet in Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, Hamnet, Shakespeare as we know him hardly has a role. Set almost exclusively in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon and centred around the domestic life of his wife and family, Will is referred to as the Latin tutor, the glover’s son, the father, the husband. and is often working away — letters arriving at intervals. Who do we meet on the first pages, but the son — desperately searching for an adult to help him. His sister is unwell and the plague is present. From here, as time and the shadow of death make their presence known, we circle back increment by increment into the world of this child and his sister, of the mother, of the extended family and the village. We circle further back to the young Latin tutor gazing out the window, bored by the tedium of his job with boys who will never become any great things, and spying a youth (at first he mistakes his future wife for a lad) with a bird (later we meet this kestrel) upon her arm; and circle back again to the reasons why he is entrenched in this wearisome role — his violent and domineering father. Agnes is central and crucial in this novel. O’Farrell takes what little knowledge of Shakespeare's wife and brings her to the reader as a full and fascinating woman in her own right. She reels from the pages with her supposed eccentricities — she is a gifted healer, a lover of plants and the wilderness (seen by some in the community as a wild thing — a woman shunned by some but needed by others) — and her independent life. Emotional and emotive, sly and quiet, when death visits at her door, her grief is unbounded. Life has been snatched from her in a startling and, to her, an uncomprehending way. Agnes and Hamnet hold you in the grooves of this novel, make you want more, and they will stay with you long after the covers are closed. You reside within Hamnet’s mind as he navigates his twin sister’s illness, as he tries to find sense in the madness of the fever and the adult world that stands just outside his grip. You walk alongside Agnes as she loses herself in nature’s wildness to emerge into a world that can only tear at her, yet is necessary for survival and the memories that bind her child to her. Each character offers up a story —  a way of seeing this world and telling its tale — a tragedy wrapped in intrigue on a small stage with rippling emotions. Hamnet is historical fiction at its best — in the vain of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series — it sets you fair and square in this time with all its life, death and drama. Immersive, compelling and rich in language and tale.  

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