Monday, November 15, 2021

A Mother with Suffering Child


“He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.”   ― Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet is a historical fiction novel about the life of William Shakespeare’s family at the time of his son Hamnet’s death in 1596 and the writing of the play Hamlet around 1600. I was disappointed with this award-winning novel. I found it boring, but even worse was the prose style of the author that succeeded in what I can only call piling on the adjectives and adjective phrases in describing in detail the mundane activities of the characters.

The description of William Shakespeare’s early life, his marriage to Anne Hathaway, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes, the death of his son Hamnet from the plague and the subsequent impact of this tragedy on their marriage and his work comprise the plot of the novel. Will is never named and is referred to as ‘her husband’, ’the father’ or ‘ the latin tutor’. He also has very little to say for himself. This deliberate omission is most likely made to free the narrative from the weight of association that his name carries, but I found it quite contrived considering how much detail we are given about the setting, including the house interiors and streets of Stratford.

The novel begins with Hamnet but the central character is his mother Agnes who is unconventional, free spirited, a gifted herbalist and clairvoyant. It is the events between Hamnet’s parents’ meeting and his birth that provide a major part of the story. At her first meeting with Will she presses the flesh between his thumb and forefinger which reveals his incredible future to her but disappointingly very little subsequently emerges from this insight. There are some interesting descriptions of his former home and the life of the household. The story is narrated in a non-linear fashion with each chapter relating to a different time period. However I found the frequent back and forth an unnecessary stylistic approach that added to my overall disappointment.

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