Posted in bloggers, family, london, Reviews

Book Review: Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

I had a somewhat unorthodox introduction to Hamlet, arguably one of the greatest plays ever written in the English language.

I was about 11 or so when I heard that John F. Kennedy Jr., who back then was the closest thing America had to a prince, had died in a plane crash. CNN and BBC news kept flashing the image of him that had indelibly imprinted itself in the public consciousness: that of a little boy saluting his father’s coffin during the procession to its final resting place. One newspaper had stamped these words, along with his picture, on the front page:

“Goodnight sweet prince, and may flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

I remember sobbing my heart out though I hardly knew the guy. Even when I was younger, I always considered a life suddenly cut short, especially when it was unexpected, to be the biggest tragedy in the world. I looked up those lines and found out they were from a play by William Shakespeare called Hamlet, and I proceeded to hunt up a copy of the play so I could read what it was all about. I was prepared to be amazed and blown away.

My actual reaction was somewhat less than enthusiastic.

To be fair, I was 11 and not nearly mature enough to appreciate the plot, and of course, the various subtexts that made the play so culturally significant and the most widely discussed among all the Bard’s plays. I only knew that it was long and confusing and I would rather have been reading Romeo and Juliet instead if I’m being honest. Needless to say, this was the first and last time I would ever read the story of the Prince of Denmark.

After reading Maggie O’Farrell’s brilliant book, I think I might just crack open a copy of the play again and see whether time and maturity would give me a different perspective. Certainly the idea that Shakespeare had named the Prince of Denmark after his deceased son, and had written it both to honour him and as a way to process his grief, gives it this air of sentimentality, so much that I expect I may never look at it the same way again.

I tend to be really suspicious of any book that wins awards, be it Man Booker Prize or Waterstones’ Book of the Year or whatever. I often find that the quality of book doesn’t quite live up to the hype, at least not in the sense that I actually enjoy reading it. Like, for example, (and I’m probably going to be roasted on the internet for this) I think Hillary Mantel’s Wolfhall series is the biggest pile of (pretentious) drivel I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading.

Hamnet, though, deserves all the accolade it’s received and more.

The plot itself is really very simple. In fact, the plot is something that a simple Wikipedia search would turn up so this isn’t really a spoiler: Hamnet does not survive this book (it says so on the very first page). He dies at eleven; and while there’s very little known about the actual cause of death, Maggie O’Farrell suggests that he died as a result of the bubonic plague that was rampant around England at the time.

It’s hard not to draw parallels at this point to the current coronavirus pandemic. I think this book had a much bigger impact on me than it would have if these had been ordinary times. I just couldn’t help but compare the family’s efforts to care for the children to that of my NHS colleagues working round the clock to give extremely unwell patients a fighting chance to return home to their families. I couldn’t help but think of reports of entire families intubated in the ITU, or young men and women whom the public once thought invincible succumbing to this deadly virus.

It’s just hard, period. If I forget to say it later, I’d quite like to thank Maggie O’Farrell for writing this book and publishing it when she did. I don’t think she realised when she started how relevant it would be to the times we now live in. And speaking for myself, I thought her writing showed she really understood what it was like to see someone go through all that suffering, knowing you were helpless to stop it, that nothing you could do could stop the virus from taking a life.

This alone would have made the book a 5-star read anyway, but then there were all the other elements that made it even better.

It is a testament to how well this book was written that us already knowing how it would end doesn’t take anything away from the build-up of tension and suspense, as the timeline shifts between the present, where the family was trying to do all they can to save the children, and the past, where we get to know more of Agnes Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s mysterious wife.

In telling the story of Agnes, the author was able to inject hints of the magical and supernatural into the book: Agnes was rumoured to be some kind of witch, although I highly doubt this is true. More like these rumours were a product of ignorant minds who simply cannot fathom another explanation for an intelligent woman, apart from this being a result of a pact made with the devil. EYE. ROLL.

I liked Agnes. I liked how modern a character she is, how she took matters into her own hands, how she was strong enough to love, let go, survive loss, forgive, and love again. Taking the time to tell her story was a clever way of keeping readers waiting and at the same time ensured that when the story reached its inevitable conclusion, we’d already formed such a connection with the characters that we wept and mourned with them, Agnes most especially.

I liked that William Shakespeare himself was never once mentioned by name in this book. Of course his legacy casts a large shadow. One never quite forgets that when the author referred to the Latin Tutor, the son, the husband, or the father, that she was actually referring to England’s (and maybe the world’s) greatest playwright. But I thought Maggie O’Farrell treated him with the care and sensitivity that the story deserved, making him just another part of the tapestry being woven.

And that tapestry had Hamnet, the boy on the cusp of manhood, at its centre. This was evident in how she opened the book: him running towards an empty house desperate to find his mother so she could tell him everything was going to be alright, knowing all the while that nothing may ever be alright again. The lack of other characters in that one scene was like the moment in a play when the spotlight shines on the main actor, alone on the stage, and for that one instant we know that there is nothing else more important than this character, that he will touch the lives of those around him for better or for worse.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s death. When they died last year, the only thing people talked about more than Kobe’s legacy was the insane waste of Gigi dying so young, how she would have done so much good for basketball and for the world if her life hadn’t been so brutally cut short.

They quoted Hamlet again. May flight of angels sing thee to they rest.

It’s like the play, and now this book, has come to represent a life uninterrupted, the vacuum left by those who are no longer with us, and the empty space that those leave behind fill with what might-have-been’s.

This book ends with the creation of the play, as we knew it would, but how it was actually portrayed was one of the most heartbreaking manifestations of grief and loss that I’ve ever read in a book. Needless to say, I was sobbing my heart out. This isn’t the cheeriest of books, and I often had to take a break to read romance novels in between just to be able to get through it, but damned if this isn’t one of the best books I’ve ever read in a long long time, and I will remember it always.

Rating: 5 amazing stars.