Chosen by Alice Beazer
I once met Maggie O’Farrell at the Nielsen Bestseller Awards, where she was picking up a Silver Award for the brilliant Instructions for a Heatwave. My only job at this event was to guide her from the edge of the stage to the interview area, whilst making some polite conversation; it wasn’t – on the face of things – a difficult task. Usually, I can chat for England. However, after reading and adoring Maggie’s books for years, I was completely star-struck. In the whole two-minute walk from the stage to the interview area, I failed to make any conversation, or even construct a single coherent sentence. At least she was very friendly! I think this anecdote offers some indication of how much respect I have for Maggie O’Farrell.
Despite reading almost all of O’Farrell’s work, I didn’t pick up a copy of Hamnet until very recently. There are a couple of reasons for my initial resistance. Firstly, I must admit that the premise of the novel didn’t sound like my cup of tea; historical fiction isn’t my preferred genre, particularly historical fiction set way back in the 16th century. Secondly, whilst I am fascinated by Shakespeare, Hamlet is my least favourite of his work; I’m more of a Much Ado About Nothing kind of gal. When I worked as an English Language Assistant in Spain, I had to direct (perhaps this is too strong a word) a production of Hamlet; an experience which is best described as ‘traumatic’. (To this day, I have no idea why the teacher thought that Hamlet was the ideal play to make group of Catalan teenagers enthusiastic about learning the English language).
After Maggie O’Farrell was announced as the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and later won the Books are my Bag Reader’s Award, I decided to ignore my dislike of historical fiction and hatred of Hamlet and see what all the fuss was about. Within about ten minutes I was transfixed. There is a sort of other-worldly, spellbinding quality to Hamnet, which outclasses O’Farrell’s previous work.
Agnes – Shakespeare’s wife – is at the centre of this story. Very little is known about the real wife of Shakespeare, Anne Hathaway, although there have been several fictional representations of this mysterious woman; Anne is most frequently presented in a negative light, as a cold and loveless woman who ‘tricked’ Shakespeare into marrying him. O’Farrell tears up this well-worn script and gives her ‘Agnes’ a new, distinctive and fascinating voice. In fact, Shakespeare is merely a secondary character in Hamnet – his name is never mentioned – instead, we follow Agnes from her humble beginnings, at the edge of the forest, through to her life as a unique, brave and intelligent woman. O’Farrell explores the unimaginable horror of losing a child, the pain and complexity of grief, of dreams lost, and of learning to cope. The immersive prose often read like poetry, and felt – for me – so much more accessible, entertaining and authentic than Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books, to which Hamnet is frequently compared.
If you, like me, were initially put off by the premise of the novel, I wholeheartedly encourage you to go and pick up a copy. No, it is not a happy book, but it is a brilliant and memorable one. The clever, non-linear structure of the story, combined with beautiful prose, and the vivid evocation of this time period make Hamnet an engaging, immersive read. This is, for me, the best book of 2020.