Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

The Hillsborough tragedy was the biggest sporting disaster in British history. At the start of the 1989 FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, police opened an exit gate into already-full ‘pens’ at the Leppings Lane end, which resulted in a fatal crush. Hubby’s brother, then 18, was at the match, though thankfully he was unhurt. A total of 97 fans died; the youngest victim was aged only 10.

You don’t expect your child to go to a football match and not come home. Nor do you expect your seemingly healthy child to go bed at night only to watch them die of a fever in the morning.  Yet this is what happens to Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, aged 11, in Maggie O’Farrell’s novel of the same name.

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have read Hamnet if my sister hadn’t bought it for me as a gift. I’d heard of the book, of course, and liked the concept, but I’d already read a couple of books by O’Farrell (Instructions for a Heatwave and The Hand That First Held Mine) and not been overly impressed.  Thank heaven for sisters and birthdays! This time I was blown away.

Hamnet is a fictionalised account of the lives of Shakespeare and his family. The story is in two parts, before and after Hamnet’s death. It’s a tale of courtship, of love, of family, of dealing with separation (famously Shakespeare moved to London for work while his wife and children remained in Stratford), of the sudden death of a child, and of how separation and loss can tear a couple and a family apart.

The story is vividly imagined. It’s empathetic but never sentimental, moving but never mawkish – a hard line to walk yet O’Farrell pulls it off beautifully.

Shakespeare wrote his iconic play Hamlet four years after his son Hamnet’s death. A note at the front of the novel explains that “Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable” in Shakespeare’s time. O’Farrell’s story ends with Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes (nowadays generally known as ‘Anne’) watching Hamlet being performed for the first time. Her reading of the play, the interconnectedness between real life and the drama unfolding before her, makes for an extraordinarily cathartic ending to an extraordinarily beautiful book.

Hamnet was winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Rating: **** One of the best books I’ve read this year.

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