Hamnet is a novel fictionalising the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet to look at what happens to a family already stretched between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. One day in 1596, a girl falls ill, and her twin brother searches for help. Their mother is out of the house and their father in London, where he makes his living as a playwright. Soon, one of the twins will be dead of the plague, a death that resonates across the family and through time due to the name connection with the famous play.
The novel moves between the ‘present’ narrative of Hamnet’s last days and the aftermath of his death, and the past, the meeting of a tutor and a woman with a kestrel who will marry and give life to Hamnet and his sisters. The writing style is poetic and readable, making the novel flow far more easily than a lot of historical fiction, and getting across the sense of fate and prescience that Agnes in particular believes in. O’Farrell paints a vivid picture of Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife (there’s a note at the end about why she chose to use this name for her rather than the more well known Anne) and Hamnet’s mother, not only her quirks but also how she deals with the grief and with the constant separation from her husband, who she knew needed to go to London.
There are plenty of fictionalised versions of Shakespeare, but this one, which focuses more on his family and on a kind of inevitability that wouldn’t be out of place in his plays, is on the more engaging end of the scale, for not trying to answer questions about his life as much as paint a story of loss and a strained relationship. The obvious links with the plague and the present day makes these a strangely timely novel in some ways, but hopefully that won’t be all it’ll be read for.