Hamnet follows Agnes, the wife of William Shakespeare, and her family - her brothers, children, in-laws - as well as several of the greater village populous. The book makes very few references to William, and never actually names him. He is always "he", "husband", "father", "him". Describing Agnes as "the wife", as I did mere sentences ago, serves only as an introduction, and as a drastic under-selling of Agnes.
Set in a 1500s southern England, the book darts between the characters' present - following the life and early death of Hamnet, Agnes' only son - and the years preceding these events: Agnes' childhood, meeting her husband, raising a family. The heart of the plot is sparked by an historical fact: Shakespeare did have a son called Hamnet, who died aged 11 in 1596 from the "Pestilence" (the Black Death). Shakespeare never mentioned this death directly in his writing, and it's still unclear what impact this death had on the writer.
O'Farrell never addresses this issue head-on, but rather through negative space and leaving feelings or events unaddressed or unexplained. This device is turned effectively against William, a man we know very little about - something which is true both in this book and in the broader historical perspective. His absence, rather than his presence, is what dominates this book.
Hamnet is an exploration of the death of a child, and how it could have such little evident impact on the work of someone from whom we have so much writing, and who we associate with such breadth and depth of human expression. Where did the grief and sadness go? Grief is certainly present in this book, though O'Farrell spends more time, and perhaps more effort, on the theme of our identity set against our family and work. She covers love in various forms, secrecy, obsession, and obscurity in engaging ways - because we are all many people, circumstances dependent. Agnes struggles to reconcile a free and wild upbringing with the confinements and expectations of house-bound married life to a man who is rarely present, in any sense of the word.
Much of Hamnet's story pins on character, with major plot events or twists being thin on the ground. O'Farrell shows us the small but rich inner lives of a village in the 1500s. We follow several characters throughout the book, and although Agnes is certainly given the most attention, O'Farrell has a way of fleshing out characters in short phrases and segments which, although sometimes spread many pages apart, feel cohesive.
Just like you can't pull plot from character in this novel, I don't think you could pull character from language. To be frank, O'Farrell's use of language in this book is masterful. It is precise and pointed, it is emotive but it does not linger or repeat.
There is a section near the middle where she describes how the Black Death arrived to England from Italy - it is a complete departure from the day-to-day lives in an English village, but she captures your attention and explains everything in human terms. This book paints portraits of people with familiar language, and allows the world to build around that - even if you don't realise you're building it.
I also want to praise the light mystic / magical elements which O'Farrell scatters around Agnes. She is a woman who knows things. These are never fully addressed or explained, which is fitting: Agnes never questions or second guesses them herself. They are a part of her, and although Agnes knows other people don't have them, she never exploits or divulges too much to anybody. This adds an extra sense of life to the already very-much-alive world which O'Farrell has created as a backdrop to a vibrant piece of work.
In Hamnet, O'Farrell has written a study of the human psyche when it cannot define or express itself. She has written in such transportive language, with light mystic elements, but the plot is almost irrelevant at times. There's a seeming lull in pace at certain points, and perhaps, at times, O'Farrell leaves a little too much unexplained or open to interpretation. Sometimes these are invitations to imagine the characters more deeply, but sometimes I felt conflicted or unsatisfied.
Despite this, I would recommend reading Hamnet - ideally in the Autumn/Winter season, under fairy lights, perhaps with a coffee or tea while the rain thrums gently outside. It is a literary work of art, allow it to transport you somewhere else. 4.5 ⭐