Hamnet, the reimagining of the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, is set in the days of the Bubonic plague. It was published in 2020 and, in the years of work leading up to its release, O’Farrell would never have been able to guess how the plights of the 1580s would resonate for its readers in today’s world.
I found the book enchanting. The writing in Hamnet is laced with magic and lyrical prose. At one point, O’Farrell is even able to mesmerise the reader with the life of a flea! There were many times I stopped to reread portions in order to get the full effect of the words.
It’s possible to pick any paragraph at random to get a sense of metaphors bursting from the book’s pages. An example: Agnes, Hamnet’s mother, in the wake of Hamnet’s death, is contemplating that “there will be closing of doors, the four of them drawing together, like dancers at the end of a reel”. Next, she shifts her attention to her husband’s travelling bag, “stuffed, filled, like the belly of an expectant woman”. When her husband attempts to explain the reason for the bag, she notices his stumbling explanation is in contrast to the way he usually “speaks in a way a stream runs fast and clear over a steep bed of pebbles.”
Nature is alive in the book; you can see the following as just one example (again, chosen at random as I flicked through the book) of how O’Farrell adeptly personifies a breeze and takes the reader along on its journey:
Night-time in the town. A deep, black silence lies over the streets, broken only by the hollow lilt of an owl, calling for its mate. A breeze slips invisibly, insistently through the streets, like a burglar seeking an entrance. It plays with the tops of the trees, tipping them one way, then the other. It shivers inside the church bell, making the brass vibrate with a single low note. It ruffles the feathers of the lonely owl, sitting on a rooftop near the church. It trembles a loose casement a few doors along, making the people inside turn over in their beds, their dreams intruded upon by images of shaking bones, of nearing footsteps, of drumming hoofs.
Shakespeare isn’t named once in the book. Instead, this reimagining is a redemption of sorts for his wife, Agnes (Anne Hathaway), who the history books have not always been kind towards. She’s imagined as an enchanting woman, greatly loved by her family.
All in all, Hamnet truly captivated me and is my favourite read of the year so far. It’s how I’ll always imagine the origins of Hamlet going forward.
I shared further thoughts on Hamnet here on my main, personal blog.