Top critical review
Innitially dull But hang in untill the end
Reviewed in the United States on July 12, 2020
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell nods to William Shakespeare’s son and bounces off the play, Hamlet, by himself. Central to the story is Anne Hathaway who at age 26 married the young 18-year-old Wil. History has the barest of records of Anne – when she was born, who her father was, that she had a dowry of six pounds (big money in the late 16th century) – that she had two pregnancies the second being boy and girl twins, that the lad, Hamnet, died at age 11 of and unknown cause, and that she died at age 65 some 6 years after Wil. She lived her whole life in Stratford and it is unknown if she ever went up to London. Oh, and there is the added detail that Wil only left her his 2nd best bed in his will with the bulk of his estate going to his elder daughter.
Around these few facts O’Farrell tells us a plausible story of the life of Anne whom O’Farrell calls Agnes – the name her father called her in his will. We know from the start of the novel that Hamnet will die of the bubonic plague so that sits there in the story of Agnes like a plumb weight.
For much of the read this is a pleasant enough tale of life in rural England of the time and I kept wondering what the point of the book was. There aren’t any metaphors, allusions, clever and pointed alliterations, any underlying message. Sure, Agnes and Wil have an attraction but they are opposites. He needs to express and goes off to London to do so – greatly for the English language with poetically complex extraordinary literature. Agnes, on the other hand is deeply in tune with nature and the hidden depth of people. She is the wise woman who intuits the aliments of folk and knows the efficacy of plants that will mend them.
It is not until the final quarter of the novel where the worth of this book becomes meaningful - shifting it from an Okay one star to a Very Good three star one. It makes the time spent liking the pleasant story meaningful but to tell of that denouement would ruin the reading by someone else. Enough to say that the whole of the novel wraps around that last quarter to draw Hamnet and Hamlet, Agnes and Wil into a fine apogee.