Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

“He has, Anges sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.”

Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet written by Maggie O’Farrell discusses the agonizing grief of losing your child and, the lifelong impact an episode like this makes on a family.

Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son, died of the plague in 1596 at Stratford. It is this, that became an inspiration behind the famous play, Hamlet, which even centuries later, remains etched in our minds. O’Farrell retells this incident from the perspective of playwright’s wife, Agnes Hathaway. I loved how Agnes’ complex personality is slowly unravelled. More than being Shakespeare’s wife, she is a compelling person and healer who empathises with people’s pain.

In the whole narrative, even though Shakespeare’s name is not mentioned, we get minor glimpses of the part he played as somebody’s son, husband and father. We, as readers, expect him to be a clever man whose genius is witnessed by those around him early on. However, it is not the case. His rise to fame was unbeknownst to his family.

The story begins with Hamnet frantically searching for the adults of his household as his twin, Judith lays suffering from a grievous illness. His father is in London, while his mother is tending to bees in a nearby farm. Each chapter follows a flashback which begins from how his parents first met and fell in love. We get a detailed view of the rise and falls of their marriage. It continues until we see the circumstances that lead to the present moment.

Throughout the book, it is known Hamnet is going to die, but we are rooting, terribly rooting for this child to survive. This is because of O’Farrell’s atmospheric, vivid and lush prose which takes us back in time and makes us one with the characters.

I loved the way grief is tackled in the book. Time, when it comes to healing, is a relative turn. It is said to efface those moments. But, sometimes, no matter how much time passes, it is difficult to escape the claws of grief that make their presence known at every turn. Apart from this, Hamnet also tackles a myriad of themes ranging from family ordeals to individual ambitions.

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