Shakespeare is always a fascinating writer to ponder, considering his literary legacy coupled with how little is known about him, something that has left plenty of room for the various conspiracy theories concerning whether it was someone else who wrote all of those amazing plays. Fortunately O'Farrell is no conspiracy theorist, rather she has written an interesting novel around what little is known about Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, whom died at the age of 11 from unknown causes. O'Farrell, appropriately for our times, depicts that it was from the bubonic plague. Despite the title of the book and Shakespeare looming large, the novel's main focus is Agnes (Anne Hathaway), her life and how she deals with the death of Hamnet and the absence of her playwright husband in London. Shakespeare himself is never referred to by his name and is given very little agency in the narrative, a bold move that mostly works, however the novel often becomes much more vital when he is around.
I struggled with Hamnet. Initially I was drawn in by O'Farrell's sumptuous style and fine descriptive powers, but as the novel progressed I became much less engaged. I came to the conclusion that although the novel was a fine piece of work, it just wasn't for me, yet I had to read it for the library's book club. This disinterest unfortunately highlighted the novel's flaws, rather than its strengths. O'Farrell goes to great lengths to give Agnes a fully rounded character and a determined agency over her world, which is absolutely valid, however at times this came across as forced and unnecessarily mystical in nature (Agnes is depicted as having prophetic and intuitive powers). Often scenes that were meant to be poignant dragged due to excessive detail and repetitious interior monologues (Agnes). Ultimately I found Hamnet to be rather dull, only engaging my full interest for short periods. To be fair, O'Farrell has fashioned a fine novel, including an engaging section describing the journey of a flea that brought the plague to Stratford and an emotionally resonate final section that revealed just how Shakespeare may have coped with the passing of his only son. Hamnet is worth your time if you love historical fiction that effectively evokes its times and gives flesh to little known characters, so don't necessarily be put off by my lukewarm response, read it and decide for yourself.