Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is the 2020 winner of the U. K.’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Schimelpfenig Library staff member Cathe here shares a review of this highly praised novel.
A boy is coming down a flight of stairs. The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding himself along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud… It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light. The sun glowers at him from outside… His hair, light-colored, almost gold, rises up from his brow in tufts.
There is no one here.
The boy is eleven-year-old Hamnet, the son of a successful playwright who is away at work in London. His twin sister Judith has become suddenly ill, and Hamnet is in search of help from his mother Agnes, who has disappeared.
This opening scene sets in motion a novel I found enthralling. It’s a re-telling of the familiar story of a family in Stratford, enriched by Maggie O’Farrell’s imaginative recreation of the mysterious marriage of a glovemaker’s son and an unconventional young woman whom she calls Agnes. We know them today as William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway.
The author describes their deeply affectionate relationship and the grief they share when their twins are struck down by terrible illness in the plague summer of 1596. Four years later, Hamnet’s name will be given to his father’s most famous play, and how that happens forms the emotionally wrenching centerpiece of this novel.
Hamnet is exceptional, and could not be more timely, or more resonant, in this pandemic year.
Consider trying another work by Maggie O’Farrell, if you liked Hamnet.
I Am I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (Autobiographical essays, 2018)
This Must Be the Place (Fiction, 2016)
The Hand that First Held Mine (Winner of the U.K.’s Costa Novel Award, 2010)