Maggie O'Farrell has taken what little is known about Shakespeare's family life and turned it into an extraordinary historical novel. While the book is named for the son, it is his mother Agnes (Anne Hathaway) who takes centre stage. She is known among the townsfolk as a mystic healer, gathering berries and plants from the forest to brew medicinal concoctions which cure all ailments.
When she was 26 she married her brothers' latin teacher, an eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare, and they had their first child a few months later. Unable to be independent of Shakespeare's family, they resided in an apartment attached to the family home. Eventually Shakespeare goes off to London, leaving his wife and three young children behind, and Hamnet tells the story of how his wife endured his absence.
O'Farrell has a beautiful way with words and the way she describes the grief felt by different family members is heartfelt. Shakespeare himself channels this despair into his play Hamlet a few years later. As a reader, I immersed myself in this tale and was transported to sixteenth century England, engrossed in the daily life of this family.
Shortlisted for the Women's Prize, I am thrilled that O'Farrell will get a wide readership with this remarkable novel. A friend introduced me to Maggie O'Farrell in the early years of this century, sending me her debut novel After You'd Gone (2000) and My Lover's Lover (2002). I also really enjoyed The Distance Between Us (2004) and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2007). Hamnet showcases the evolution of her writing.