It is a huge honour to be taking part in the blogtour today for Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, Hamnet. The book was published on 31st March but in common with many authors whose books are being published just now, the vast majority of the events to promote the book have been cancelled. Thankfully, there have been several events online (watch out for more) and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours has arranged a blogtour, with lots of bloggers volunteering at relatively short notice to read the book and share their thoughts. If you have seen any of the publicity surrounding the book online, you will know that people are shouting from the rooftops about how wonderful this book is and I am adding my loudest voice to those shouts!
I have to admit that I didn’t really know much about Shakespeare’s family before reading this book. As a result of his great fame, they have always been somewhat sidelined. I only know of his wife Anne Hathaway because of the historic property in Stratford Upon Avon. This book changes that and although it’s fiction, it has of course been well researched so I feel I know more about several members of Shakespeare’s family now. Interestingly, in this book Shakespeare himself is never named. He is almost relegated to the position of a bit player, an insignificant though recurring character. He is referred to as the tutor, the glover’s son, a husband, a father, a brother but never by name.
His wife is called Agnes throughout the book as this is what her father called her in his will. I thought she was a superb character with her knowledge of the use of medicinal herbs, her ability to help people with varying ailments and her disconcerting ability to have a sense of what was going to happen. If Agnes was really like that in those days, she would no doubt have had to hide it well for fear of being suspected a witch.
With remarkable, although coincidental, timing the book is set at the time of a Bubonic plague in the late 16th century. We can, of course, really now see the parallels to today but how much luckier are we with our wonderful health service? Back then, little was known about such illnesses, even less about how to treat them and getting the plague meant almost certain death. Just like now, the theatres in London were closed due to the plague and people only allowed to gather in certain places. I particularly enjoyed the chapter which told of the imagined coincidences which allowed the plague to spread leading to both Hamnet and his twin Judith becoming infected.
Maggie O’Farrell has a real immediacy to her style of writing, one that makes me feel that I’m right there in the moment, a close observer. Her attention to detail makes for a richly layered tapestry of a novel with so much to notice. She makes Elizabethan history and the way of life seem so vivid and alive without it feeling like this is a history book you are reading. This is a book I feel would benefit from a second reading, to take time to take in small details perhaps missed first time round. I was completely absorbed in the world of the Shakespeare family. Maggie O’Farrell has once again written a superb novel and shows she’s just as expert in telling a compelling historical tale as she is writing contemporary fiction.
I cannot express enough how much I adored this book and really encourage people to read it. Without doubt, this will be one of my books of the year for 2020.
Enormous thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the invitation to take part in the blogtour and to the publishers for my gorgeous copy of the book. In these difficult times for publishing, please order your copy from your local bookshop if you can. Otherwise you will find various buying options on the publishers’ website here: Hamnet
From the back of the book
TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.
On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?
Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.
Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.
About the author
Maggie O’Farrell is the author of seven novels, AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, and THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award. Maggie has also written a memoir, I AM, I AM, I AM. She lives in Edinburgh.