Book Review: HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell

Genre: Historical
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 4 stars
Series: Standalone


Book cover for HAMNET: title in gold on blue below a giant white H with golden leaves around it

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grown medicinal herds. Their father is working in London.

Neither parent knows that one of their children will not survive the week.

It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a chip in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves.

Synopsis taken from book. Add to your Goodreads shelves here.


HAMNET is a very lyrical book about grief and love and how a life can change so fast. I rarely read the books on the big award lists, as they are general fiction and that’s not my cup of tea. However, I’d heard so much about this one and it’s about Shakespeare’s family. So I got it for my mum as a present – then borrowed it when she was done!

I enjoyed it, and I know I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been personally recommended to me by people I know. However, I can acknowledge that the book was both good but not entirely my thing at the same time. It’s that weird juxtaposition of “I liked this, but I wouldn’t actively seek out something like this again soon.”

It is so well written. It’s in third person past tense, which I always think lends itself so well to a more flowing, literary style, but takes a lot more skill to do well. I loved the prose in this book (and then had to go and edit the scene I was working on in my own book as I’d switched into present tense because I’d been so swept away by this one!)

The first half of the book alternates between two timelines. The first timeline is the events around Judith (Hamnet’s twin)’s illness, from Hamnet discovering her illness to trying to find his family, to everything that unfolds as she gets sicker. The second is the story of Shakespeare and his wife, Agnes, as they fall in love, get married, and start off their lives together. It was an interesting technique, to switch between the two, but it provides an interesting contrast – stressed and a happiness that gets a little strained.

Even though William Shakespeare is one of the characters, he is never named. He is the husband, the father, the son etc. It’s an interesting choice. I’m not sure if it’s so that the reader doesn’t necessarily know who the book is about, but I find that doubtful. Admittedly, I do know the history this book is about, but it felt like it was pretty obvious.

Therefore, I think it is more likely that the purpose of this stylistic choice is to take the focus away from William Shakespeare and put it on Agnes (sometimes called Anne in the historical record.) The story is about her life and her grief, and Shakespeare is a side character to it.


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