Audiobook Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Narrated by: Daisy Donovan
Publisher: Tinder Press
Format: Audiobook
Release Date: March 31st, 2020

Rating: 4/5 Stars

This is definitely an interesting book, but as I listened to the Audible version I think there were quite a few things I missed, but I’ll touch on that later. Really, what ideally would happen is eventually I’d pick up a paperback copy of this, and read it that way instead to fill in the gaps.

There does seem to be a fascination in recent years with the women behind the men, women we often know very little about, but who played key roles all the same. Hamnet is less about Shakespeare’s son, and more about his wife, Anne, who may have actually been Agnes, and in Hamnet, O’Farrell uses the name Agnes instead. Even this slight change does something wonderful – it shores up the idea of Agnes in our minds, not as Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, but as her own person, with her own life, thoughts, feelings, desires. Agnes is a healer, connected with nature, left behind in Stratford while her husband makes his way to London.

The writing style isn’t for everyone, but it does feel like it suits the story itself, wrapping around the characters and creating this busy, hectic family life without it feeling too overwhelming. Another point to make about the names in this novel: Shakespeare himself is never named, and as far as I remember, even ‘Shakespeare’ is never really mentioned. He is ‘the tutor’ or ‘the husband’ or ‘Father’, often absent, often unreachable by those who love him the most, almost reversing the way Agnes and Will have been treated by history.

And this book’s focus is on those who loved him, on his wife and children – although we get some of the novel from his POV, our main view of him is through the eyes of his family, who live their lives away from him yet are shadowed by their desire for him to return home.

Magic hovers over the family, with Agnes being described as having unusual gifts, and living with the knowledge one of her children will die. The leadup to Hamnet’s death is beautifully written, in a way that you still feel the shock and Agnes’ heartbreak, even knowing the novel has been building up to that point. I can see why some aspects divide readers, but I liked the chapter dedicated to the journey of a flea, and felt like the ending wrapped things up fairly nicely.

The main criticism I have and a large part of the reason I want to re-read this was the narration. Daisy Donovan’s tone and style fitted the novel really well at points, but in large parts it felt like she was rushing through them, when the prose deserves and needs time for the reader to let it sink in. I’ve also slowly realised I struggle with larger numbers of characters in single narration audio books, and there’s a fair few to keep track of here, along with a lot of movement from one house, room, area to the next. Between that and the fast narration, there were a few times I felt a bit confused about how we had gotten to a particular place.

But overall all, if you like Historical Literary fiction, and are intrigued by what a writer does with the story of Anne/Agnes, I think this one is worth checking out.

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