Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Hamnet

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Just like there is a Hamlet and a Hamnet, I feel there are two Hamnets: the novel that Maggie O’Farrell actually wrote, and the story that has been hyped to the back of beyond since its publication was first announced back in 2019. This makes it a difficult novel to review, because, if I’d just come across this book as ‘the next Maggie O’Farrell’, I think I’d have taken it more to my heart than I actually did. I understand why a publisher would want to try and push an author like O’Farrell to the next level; having utterly adored her last two books, her novel This Must Be The Place and her memoir I Am, I Am, I AmI was genuinely shocked to discover that, for example, she’s never been longlisted for the Women’s Prize before. I am a long-time admirer of O’Farrell’s understated but beautiful, observational prose, and I have read everything she’s ever written. Nevertheless – and perhaps because, unlike readers discovering her for the first time, I already know how good O’Farrell can be – I felt underwhelmed by Hamnet.

Hamnet is billed as telling the untold story of Shakespeare’s son, who died when he was only eleven years old, but I found this misleading in two ways. Firstly, I feel like it’s common knowledge that Shakespeare had a son who died young. Secondly, the book is really about Shakespeare’s wife, here called Agnes (Anne Hathaway was named as ‘Agnes’ in her father’s will – and I think it’s a clever choice by O’Farrell to use this name, giving herself some distance between the historical figure and her own creation). And unfortunately, I found that Agnes often fell into some familiar stereotypes, despite some transcendent moments, such as the scene when she is unable to wrap her son in his winding sheet, because it means she will never see his face again. I find historical novels that seek to tear down a man’s reputation as if that’s the only way to give the women in his life some agency intensely irritating – this was one of the reasons why I struggled with Madeline Miller’s Circebecause I didn’t like the way it treated Odysseus. Hamnet does not exactly do this. Shakespeare, never named in the text, is portrayed as a man who deeply loves his wife and children despite his long absences from home. However, there’s still a tendency to write Agnes into the story by writing him out, and I would have preferred a novel that felt more equally split between the two parents.

O’Farrell brings early modern England wonderfully to life in very few words. The setting of the story is completely captivating. However, I didn’t feel that Hamnet achieved the same kind of depth in its characterisation. I’ve already suggested that Agnes feels a little stale; Hamnet himself, alongside his siblings, never became truly real to me. For this reason, the novel never broke my heart in the way it set out to do. O’Farrell writes so well about grief, but I found myself admiring her writing from afar rather than grieving with the characters. Rather than being glued to this book, I kept on thinking back to a different novel that enthralled me as a teenager, Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows. The two books are not exactly the same. Cooper tells the story of a young actor, Nat, who is thrown back in time to Elizabethan England and ends up as part of Shakespeare’s company. However, King of Shadows also portrays Shakespeare as a grieving father, forging a special connection with Nat, who is a fatherless boy – and it was the sharpness of the emotion in that book that I found myself craving.

Hamnet is absolutely worth reading, especially if you haven’t read O’Farrell before. However, I don’t think it’s the ‘novel of her career’ [© publicity]. Selfishly, I’d hope that’s a novel she’s not yet written! But if we’re confined to her existing corpus, then I’d say that This Must Be The Place sees her writing at the height of her powers; that The Hand That First Held Mine is genuinely moving in a way that for me, this novel was not; and that After You’d Gone might not be the most accomplished of her books, but it remains an astonishing debut. But as I say, I still feel confident that the best is yet to come.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number ten. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We Disappeared; and A Thousand Ships.

24 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Hamnet

  1. Wonderful review – I’m only near the start of this so far and I am very much enjoying it – her prose is effortless to read. I have added her backlist to my wishlist – I’m glad to read that I’m in for a treat.

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  2. I go back and forth on whether I think I will enjoy this. I have only read I Am, I Am, I Am, which I liked but wasn’t enamored by and I do not really love Historical Fiction. I do like books about women and grief and for some weird reason child loss (although mostly in memoirs). It is one of the books on the longlist that I am more excited about though, so hopefully it’ll work better for me than for you!

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  3. “O’Farrell writes so well about grief, but I found myself admiring her writing from afar rather than grieving with the characters.” – That’s very much how I felt too! Though I will say, despite my initial high hopes not quite being met, this one has stayed with me pretty well, and if anything, it has improved over time.

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  4. I was really looking forward to this and, althougn I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it. I felt the Shakespeare connection was really tenuous and I particularly disliked the ending, where the real Hamnet and the fictional Hamlet came together – it just didn’t work for me. But I enjoyed it and would have enjoyed it had it been a story of any family, rather than a ‘famous’ family.

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    • This is close to what I felt. The hype really affected my experience of it and made me feel more frustrated with it than would otherwise have been the case.

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  6. I can’t believe I’ve not read O’Farrell’s novels – yet – I own several; I loved I am, I am, I am though. I’ll be reading Hamnet soon. Did you see the Kenneth Branagh film All for Love? They postulated about Hamnet’s death in the film, which was interesting, and the daughters were well done.

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  7. Great review! I’ve seen some mixed thoughts on this one so I’m not entirely sure what to expect for my own experience, but this post helped. I haven’t read any of O’Farrell’s work yet, though she is on my TBR. It’s encouraging to hear that I might get on with this one better for it being the first from this author, and also great to know which titles to focus on when continuing with her work afterward. I am sorry to see this one didn’t provoke more of an emotional response for you, despite the quality writing- better luck with your next read, I hope. You must be getting close to the end of the longlist!

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