England, 1580. A penniless young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes understands plants and potions better than she does people, but once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast force in the life of her young husband, whose gifts as a writer are just beginning to awaken when his beloved young son succumbs to bubonic plague.
As William Styron once wrote, the historical novelist works best when fed on short rations. The rations at Maggie O’Farrell’s disposal are scant but tasty, just the kind of morsels to nourish an empathetic imagination ... This novel is at once about the transfiguration of life into art — it is O’Farrell’s extended speculation on how Hamnet’s death might have fueled the creation of one of his father’s greatest plays — and at the same time, it is a master class in how she, herself, does it ... O’Farrell, Irish-born, schooled in Scotland and Wales, and shaped by a childhood steeped in story and school days that always began with song, has a melodic relationship to language. There is a poetic cadence to her writing and a lushness in her descriptions of the natural world...She is deft, too, at keeping her research subordinated to the story. We’re not force-marched through a manual on 16th-century glove-making techniques or an exegesis of illegal practices in the Tudor wool trade. But we can smell the tang of the various new leathers in the glover’s workshop, the fragrance of the apples racked a finger-width apart in the winter storage shed ... The book builds toward an intriguing speculation, which I will not reveal here. As it unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing.
Such an undertaking is an enormous challenge, but O’Farrell is passionately steeped in the period ... The utter fluency with which O’Farrell glides across years and decades, never lingering in one timeframe for long yet never confusing the reader, has always been one of her most remarkable achievements as a writer ... Once the illness leaps from Judith to Hamnet in August 1596, the novel becomes a breathtakingly moving study of grief ... O’Farrell’s portrait of maternal and sibling bereavement is so accurately expressed it’s almost too painful to read. Hamnet is, above all, a profound study of loss ... At her best, O’Farrell is simply outstanding. Within pages, she can inhabit the mind of an owl, of a great playwright, of a dying boy, of those watching him. It seems she can pretty much do anything on the page that she puts her mind to. Immersive, at times shockingly intimate, and triumphantly brought to fruition, this is a work that ought to win prizes.
O’Farrell’s great skill throughout the book is to treat obviously 'Shakespearean' themes, such as...gender-blurring or the affinity between boy and girl twins, with subtlety, making them almost tangential when they occur in the playwright’s own life ... This is not O’Farrell’s first foray into historical fiction...but it is quite unlike anything she has written before. There is an elliptical, dreamlike quality to her prose in Hamnet that, though not obviously steeped in 16th-century language, is essential to creating a world that feels at once wholly tangible and somehow otherworldly, as if the membrane between the natural and supernatural was more porous then. The depth of her research is evident on every page ... Hamnet is evidence that there are always new stories to tell, even about the most well-known historical figures. It also confirms O’Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds – qualities also possessed by a certain former Latin tutor from Stratford.