Historical fiction lovers rejoice! Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is simply one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. Hamnet follows the story of Shakespeare’s family but with a refreshing focus on his free-spirited wife, Agnes. You know from the beginning that one of their twins, Hamnet, succumbs to the plague in his youth and inspires the play by his father. What you don’t know is the complex love of this family-the tender connection between each character in their yearnings, their expectations and their grief. This novel is achingly beautiful, stunningly heartbreaking but worth every single minute because every sentence from O’Farrell is a gift. This is the best historical fiction I’ve read since All the Light You Cannot See. Rejoice indeed.
In this novel, Shakespeare’s fictional, free-spirited wife Agnes grapples with the death of one of their twins, Hamnet, as Maggie O'Farrell breathes life into the family experience that shaped the famous play. Every sentence, achingly beautiful and heartbreaking, demonstrates the tender connection between the characters in their yearnings, their expectations, and their grief. Hamnet is simply one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve ever read.
O’Farrell makes words dance on the page, embodying the spirit of Shakespeare while focusing on the untold story of his wife, Agnes, a witchy wonder who brews herb tonics and trains falcons while her husband gets ink stains on his fingers in London. Yes, there is a death, and it is painful to read. But the tears feel good, ya know?
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
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD
“Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life ... here is a novel ... so gorgeously written that it transports you." —The Boston Globe
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 just taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.
About the Author
Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, Maggie O’Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland. She is the author of eight novels: After You’d Gone (winner of the Betty Trask Award); My Lover’s Lover; The Distance Between Us (recipient of a Somerset Maugham Award); The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox; The Hand That First Held Mine (winner of the Costa Book Award); Instructions for a Heatwave; This Must Be the Place; and Hamnet, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has also written a memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, and a picture book for children, Where Snow Angels Go. She lives in Edinburgh.
"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. . . . 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 TimesBook Review
“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. . . . 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." —The Boston Globe
"A tour de force. . . . 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." —NPR
"O'Farrell moves through the family's pain like a master of signs and signals. . . . In Hamnet, art imitates life not to co-opt reality, but to help us bear it." —Los Angeles Times
"Wholly original, fully engrossing. . . . Agnes is a character for the ages—engimatic, fully formed and nearly literally bewitching to behold in every scene she's in." —San Francisco Chronicle
“A moving portrait of a mother’s grief. . . . O’Farrell’s prose is characteristically beautiful.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Evocative. . . . [Hamnet] is also life-affirming as it suggests ways art can transcend misfortune.” —National Review
“Superb. . . . O’Farrell’s exquisitely wrought eighth novel proves once again what a very fine writer she is.” —Financial Times
“Elliptical, dreamlike. . . . [Hamnet] confirms O’Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds—qualities also possessed by a certain former Latin tutor from Stratford.” —The Observer (UK)
“A remarkable piece of work. . . . O’Farrell is one of the most surprisingly quiet radicals in fiction.” —The Scotsman (UK)
“[A] portrayal of grief and pain. . . . O’Farrell describes these agonies with such power that Hamnet would resonate at any time.” —The Guardian
“[O’Farrell is] a writer of rare emotional intelligence whose personal intimations of mortality bear rich fruit in this, her eighth novel.” —Evening Standard
“This artfully paced novel is an anatomy of grief. . . . Just when the novel’s second part seems to be moving to a tragic conclusion, it mounts a stunning redemptive volte-face.” —The Times Literary Supplement