Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

‘Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.’

I am torn. The writing is beautiful, the imagery is clear, the people well-described. But the imagining of a life and death for a child clearly hinted to be Hamnet Shakespeare kept me from totally enjoying the story. Why? I am not entirely sure. Putting aside the imagined lives of real people, the novel itself is a stunning meditation on life and death, on choice and consequence. William Shakespeare is not named in this novel, but there is a performance of ‘Hamlet’ just to reinforce the connection. The major focus on the novel is on 16th century domestic life in Stratford and the connection between Hamnet and his twin Judith. Life, death, and creatures dominate.

My favourite part of the novel is contained within the description (in fewer than twenty pages) of how the pestilence travelled:

‘For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events needed to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people to meet.’

Ms O’Farrell slows the story down:

‘The first is a glassmaker on the island of Murano in the principality of Venice’ the second is a cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing for Alexandria on an unseasonably warm morning with an easterly wind.’

The detail that follows takes me on a journey of circumstance, coincidence, chance, and tragedy. These are the details that shape and sometimes end lives. Some aspects of existence cannot be controlled.

I kept reading and thinking. I would have loved this story except the Shakespeare connection kept jerking me out of fiction wondering about fact. I’m surprised: I don’t usually have an issue with imagined lives in historical fiction. Hmm.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith