Moving effortlessly between the past and present, Maggie O’Farrell’s novel is a vivid portrait of Shakespeare’s family life.

Taking some of the focus off playwright William Shakespeare and shining a light on his family life, Maggie O’Farrell’s profound novel beautifully intertwines the past with the present to offer real depth and insight into the world in which they lived.

Despite the title (relating to Shakespeare’s young son who helped inspire the play Hamlet), the story is actually more focused on Hamnet’s mother Agnes. It takes us on a journey from her childhood and meeting ‘the tutor’ who later becomes ‘the husband’ and ‘the father’, all the way through her having to deal with grief and trying to move forward with her life.

Written with explicit detail, the style with which Hamnet has been written does take some getting used to, keeping the pace of the story frustratingly slow in places. However, what can’t be denied is that in this way, it builds up a vivid picture of Elizabethan life – particularly as Hamnet runs through the streets desperate to find someone to help his twin sister Judith who has been taken unexpectedly ill.

What is also interesting is the way in which O’Farrell decides not to use Shakespeare’s name instead relegating him to the titles of the positions that he holds such as ‘husband’ and ‘father’. By doing this, the author ensures that for once the attention is deservedly given to his wife Agnes (better known as Anne Hathaway) and telling her story, rather than allowing Shakespeare to be a distraction. He is involved but its not his story. This is very much a female dominated story – their feelings and thoughts dominate the book and richly enhance the details of everyday life.

But while the first half of the book is focused on life and family, the second part concentrates more on grief as we read more about Agnes and the way in which she struggles to cope in the aftermath of a tragic death. We read how it changes her relationship with her husband and her own outlook on life – every description of her grief is beautifully poignant that you feel her pain vividly.

While this book does take a little time to get going, there is no denying that by the end this is a powerfully emotional read that brilliantly brings the Elizabethan world to life. The images that O’Farrell creates through her vivid descriptions last long in the mind after you finish the book.

By Emma Clarendon

Hamnet is available to buy now.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐