Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play. It is about revenge, justice, madness and procrastination with a hint of the supernatural. So when I learned that 'Hamlet' is also written as 'Hamnet' , I was intrigued. The real person who inspired the play, perhaps.
A beautifully written book, with a narrative slightly elevated in keeping with a sense of the Tudor period, not so much as to make it archaic, but modern enough to make it accessible and timeless. The prologue explains that Hamnet is William Shakespeare's young son although Shakespeare himself is never named being referred to as the husband, father or the Latin Tutor, as if naming him is taboo.
The story starts with the boy Hamnet looking for an adult to help his twin sister who has suddenly fallen ill. Here we see the description of the family house and the grandfather's trade of glove making. Then it flips to time out with the father who-shall-be-not-named, then to when Hamnet's parents meet and the hostility their relationship brings within the families. Then back to the point of view of the sick girl, then back to Hamnet.
The past is written in the present tense with reported speech. There are poetic similes and an intimate scene expressed via the medium of apples. A wonderfully original scene too. Although the boy Hamnet holds the title of the this tale, it it really about his mother - how she met her husband, how she deals with her unconformity, her family, marriage, life and death. Hamnet's purpose for the story becomes apparent towards the end in a moving and powerful way.
Evocative and at times heartbreaking, O'Farrell's book is competing with Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light for literary awards in 2020. Disappointing to see that the distinctive style of Mantel is occasionally copied: 'She, Agnes...' and 'He, Hamnet...' as if this little quirk is the benchmark of higher creativity. Not needed. This book stands alone without such gestures.
Shakespeare's play bears no resemblance to his son or his life, but O'Farrell forges a poignant and lasting thread in this novel. The story grows from an interesting tale to a magnificent and elaborate crescendo of language covering every corner of the pain of life and death. Highly recommended.
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