Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell — a book review

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Did you know that William Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet? “Hamnet?” you ask, “Not Hamlet?” Correct. Apparently the names were interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day. Author Maggie O’Farrell learned of Hamnet’s existence from her high school English Literature teacher and was so struck by this information that she never forgot it. Move ahead thirty years: After many delays and much research by O’Farrell, the book Hamnet was published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf. And what a book it is.

Like a master impressionist artist, Maggie O’Farrell paints her novel about a family and village in plague ridden, mid-sixteenth century England with such exquisite color and beguiling detail that the reader’s mind becomes saturated with the image-rich, emotion-filled story. Of the heart-rending moments in Hamnet, and there are many, the most poignant is the death and burial of a child. O’Farrell’s ability to make deep, mind-fracturing sorrow tangible is astonishing. Keep the tissue box close by, dear reader.

In Hamnet, O’Farrell portrays the inner and outer worlds of Agnes Hathaway, more often known as Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Not that William Shakespeare is ever named in the book, because he is not – not once. We know that the person who is Agnes’ husband is Shakespeare because it is common knowledge and in the story we see Anne’s strangely distracted, bright husband grow into his profession as a playwright. But O’Farrell has chosen to focus her attention on Agnes, and she builds a fascinating, multi-dimensional story of this woman who, according to an interview with the author on Damien Barr’s Literary Salon (March 4, 2021), has seldom received esteem from either historians or novelists. With stunning skill and obvious respect, O’Farrell has made Agnes the undisputed hero of Hamnet.

An aspect of the book that feels oddly familiar due to COVID-19, is the brooding backdrop of the Black Plague. In one chapter, O’Farrell follows the journey of a plague-infected flea from southern Europe to a final landing place in small English town, where it proceeds to bite and infect many inhabitants. In our own time of Pandemic, this record of the transfer of infection from one country to another, from one person to another, was particularly relevant and uncannily spooky.

I read Hamnet some time ago and was so bowled over by it that I could not immediately articulate my impressions of the book. I have found that when I cannot process my experience of a book in words, I must go to another art form to describe the encounter, which is why there is the reference to pointillist art in the opening paragraphs of this review.

Now, I would like to try to describe a strategy in O’Farrell’s writing by comparing it to the wax resist method of dyeing cloth. Wax resist is a technique used in producing vibrantly beautiful batik fabrics. In the Indonesian batik method for dyeing whole cloth, wax motifs are applied to cloth before it is dipped into vats of various colors of dye. The dye does not penetrate the wax, thus “wax resist.” This results in dazzling designs appearing on the cloth at the end of the dyeing process. In Hamnet, there are times when what Maggie O’Farrell does not say creates the most astonishing impressions. Combine this “word resist” skill with the lively colors and rich details of O’Farrell’s narrative, and just as in the beautiful batik fabrics, the final effect of her writing is pure magic. Treat yourself to an extraordinary book — Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.