Hamnet & Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell. Pub 2020
(The book is published as “Hamnet” in the UK – don’t know why…)
I can’t remember where or when I first heard about this book, but it made it on to my book wish list and became one of my Christmas additions to my tsundoku. I’ve been making my way slowly through some good but challenging non-fiction so decided to take a break with something light and fiction, and this was a good choice for that.
The novel tells the highly imaginative story of William Shakespeare and Agnes (aka Anne) Hathaway, and their lives leading up to and immediately following the death of their son, Hamnet. The characters are colourful and almost archetypal (the mean step-mother, the intolerant mother-in-law, the wicked drunk father) such that the story sometimes reads a bit like a farce, with each character being over-the-top in their roles. The love story and the story of Shakespeare’s wife and children are believable but not hugely engaging, especially as they are so separate from the playwright’s life in the London theatre. There is little to explain the wondrous rise of his fame and fortune, and it seems to be almost taken for granted by the family, despite their own meagre and often uncomfortable existence.
The novel is a bit inconsistent at times, focusing a great deal on some things for a while and then almost forgetting them. For example, much is made in the early part of the story about Agnes’ falconry and her kestrel; once she marries, the beloved familiar is given away, never to be mentioned again. The violence executed by the father, either directly or as a lurking menace in the household, is prominent for a while but morphs later into nothing more than a gruff moodiness.
While Judith is named in the title, she is not much more than a supporting character to her mother. The lack of focus on either Hamnet or Judith as characters make the details of the grief Agnes and William experience difficult to comprehend.
The story was enjoyable and light, and just right to be a distraction from heavier things. I put it in the grocery-line-up category – mass market, not quite Danielle Steel, but pretty close to it.
Fate: charity shop