August 2020 Indie Next List
“I loved Hamnet in very much the same way I loved Lincoln in the Bardo. This novel explores the way the dead haunt the living—especially how the death of a child haunts their parents—and does it in the context of a fascinating historical figure and time. But we know so much about the Lincolns, and so little about the Shakespeares. Maggie O’Farrell’s ability to construct a palpably real emotional life for all the members of the Shakespeare family—but especially for Shakespeare’s wife—is just magical. This is a powerful and haunting novel.”
— Nina Barrett, Bookends & Beginnings, Evanston, IL
England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young, alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.
A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.
A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.
About the Author
Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, Maggie O’Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland and now lives in Edinburgh. She is the author of The Hand That First Held Mine (winner of the Costa Novel Award); Instructions for a Heatwave; This Must Be the Place; and most recently, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death.
"Hamnet is an exploration of marriage and grief written into the silent opacities of a life that is at once extremely famous and profoundly obscure... In Hamnet, Shakespeare's marriage is complicated and troubled, yet brimming with love and passion... This novel is at once about the transfiguration of life into art-- it is O'Farrell's extended speculation on how Hamnet's death might have fueled the creation of one of his father's greatest plays-- and at the same time, it is a master class in how she, herself does it... O'Farrell has a melodic relationship to language. There is a poetic cadence to her writing and a lushness in her descriptions of the natural world... We can smell the tang of the various new leathers in the glover's workshop, the fragrance of the apples racked a finger-width apart in the winter storage shed, and we can see how the pale London sun "reaches down, like ladders, through the narrow gaps in buildings to illuminate the rain glazed street."... As the book unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage, and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing."
--Geraldine Brooks, the New York Times Book Review [COVER]
“All too timely...inspired...[An] exceptional historical novel ”
—The New Yorker
"Magnificent and searing... A family saga so bursting with life, touched by magic, and anchored in affection that I only wish it were true. Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life, about whether he even wrote his own plays, here is a novel that matches him with a woman overwhelmingly more than worthy... I nearly drowned at the end of this book, and at some other spots besides. It would be wise to keep some tissues handy... So gorgeously written that it transports you from our own plague time right into another and makes you glad to be there."
—The Boston Globe
"A tour de force...Although more than 400 years have unspooled since Hamnet Shakespeare's death, the story O'Farrell weaves in this moving novel is timeless and ever-relevant... O'Farrell brilliantly turns to historical fiction to confront a parent's worst nightmare: the death of a child...Hamnet vividly captures the life-changing intensity of maternity in its myriad stages — from the pain of childbirth to the unassuagable grief of loss. Fierce emotions and lyrical prose are what we've come to expect of O'Farrell. But with this historical novel she has expanded her repertoire, enriching her narrative with atmospheric details of the sights, smells, and relentless daily toil involved in running a household in Elizabethan England — a domestic arena in which a few missing menstrual rags on washday is enough to alarm a mother of girls."
"Miraculous... brilliant... A novel told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse... through the alchemy of her own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage... A richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death."
--Ron Charles, The Washington Post
"It so happens that the child at the center of Hamnet inspired one of civilization’s most famous plays, but in Maggie O’Farrell’s gifted hands, Hamnet feels as real as my own child. The raw physical life of O’Farrell’s Renaissance England is enthralling. But the beating heart of this book is Hamnet’s mother – an indelible, dauntless woman. What a sensual, full-throated love song to the lost child."
"Hamnet is a beautiful read, a devastating one, intricate, and breathtakingly imaginative. It will stay with me a long time"
"I'm absolutely blown away by Maggie O'Farrell's HAMNET. Love, grief, hope, resilience - the world of this novel is so vivid I could nearly smell the grass in the fields, hear the rain in the gutters. In moments where the story shoots up to heaven I was there, too, grieving with these characters, feeling how lucky we all are to be alive, understanding how desperately we want the people we love to be remembered. It's without a doubt one of the best novels I've ever read."
--Mary Beth Keane, author of Ask Again, Yes
"A bold, beautiful, heart-breaking novel. Maggie has taken on both the most famous writer in the world and the mantle of history with effortless grace. In the process she’s written the book of her life. I’m wildly jealous!"
"This striking, painfully lovely novel captures the very nature of grief."
--Booklist [starred review]
"What could be more common, over centuries and continents, than the death of a child - and yet Maggie O’Farrell, with her flawless sentences and furious heart, somehow makes it new. This story of remarkable people bereft of their boy will leave you shaking with loss but also the love from which family is spun."
--Emma Donoghue, author of Room
"Grief and loss so finely written I could hardly bear to read it"
--Sarah Moss, author of Ghost Wall
"A bold undertaking, beautifully imagined and written"
--Claire Tomalin, author of Charles Dickens: A Life
"Heartstopping. Hamnet does for the Shakespeare story what Jean Rhys did for Jane Eyre, inhabiting it, enlarging it and enriching it in ways that will alter the readers view for ever"
--Patrick Gale, author of A Place Called Winter
"Exquisite, immersive and compelling… deserves to win prizes"
--Marian Keyes, author of The Break
"I don’t know how anyone could fail to love this book. It is a marvel: a great work of imaginative recreation and a great story. It is also a moral achievement to have transformed that young child from being a literary footnote into someone so tenderly alive that part of you wishes he had survived and Hamlet never been written"
--Dominic Dromgoole, author of Hamlet, Globe to Globe