A review by dimins
Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell

emotional reflective sad medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No

3.5

3.5/5 - I have so many complex feelings about this book so let me try and list them down simply. This is by no means a bad book, but it is also a very triggering book. As a first-time and new mom of a baby who has a few surgeries planned, this was not an easy book to read for me. However, there are reasons why I didn’t mind going through with it instead of simply DNFing it despite the triggers. 
From the blurb and even from the first page of this book, you know that Hamnet dies before you even begin. The rest of the book is really just like watching a train wreck in <i>agonizingly</i> slow motion. Not just the train wrecking itself, but also the factors leading up to a train wreck, like a driver falling asleep or a conductor missing a light. You see every tiny detail that leads up to the big tragedy of this book. But I appreciated this point somehow, that we spend most of the book seeing the tragedy coming and mentally bracing ourselves for it, and that’s probably why I managed to make it through the book. 
The most triggering parts of the plot for me was in the very final (and long) chapter. I’ll skip over describing the chapter, but I skimmed through at least the first half of it because I knew I wasn’t mentally or emotionally ready to read that kind of detail yet. 
The complexity of my feelings is with how the major theme of the book, the death of a child, is dealt with. I’m not sure if I’m a huge fan of how it’s treated here. 
Everyone knows this book is about William Shakespeare’s wife Agnes and their three children. Two major factors rubbed me the wrong way, although to differing extents. Shakespeare’s name is not mentioned a single time through this book, and he’s not even referred to as “William” at all. He is the only character in this book to not even be referred to by name. I suppose there might be a reason for it - that his fame is enough to drown out every other character in this book, and since this book is meant to shine the spotlight on them, O’Farrell felt the need to put Shakespeare in the darkest corner of the room. I guess that’s fine, but after an entire book of reading him being referred to as “the bridegroom”, “her husband”, “the son”, “the father”, etc. it just started feeling a little gimmicky and like we’re just dancing around the obvious. You know that psychology thing where if you were asked <i>not</i> to think of a pink elephant, you would do exactly just that? This basically felt like that. Shakespeare is referred to in all the book’s marketing materials (obviously for publicity purposes), but then in not acknowledging this story is also about him, it just felt like - we all know this already, why don’t you just come out and say it? 
Another thing is how Agnes has some <i>magic powers</i> and this is basically infusing some magical realism into their life stories. Her mother has mysterious origins and Agnes ends up inheriting some of this witchcraft by genes or something, because
Spoilerher mother dies in childbirth when Agnes is still a young child, barely out of toddler-hood
. There’s a magicky vibe throughout the story because of this which, again, I felt like it didn’t need to be there. It almost made Agnes feel a bit like “not like other girls”, but medieval witch-style. Perhaps some part of her magic was meant to add to the foreboding and the suspense, since she can
Spoilersee the future and see how people’s lives end, she knows that she only has 2 children around her deathbed but she gives birth to 3
, but I just felt like the magicky elements took away from the central tragedy somewhat, and clothed it in this wispy ethereal covering. The death of a child is raw and traumatic and indescribably excruciating, and while some parts of the book does some justice to the depth of pain in that grief, I feel like some parts of it felt a bit distracted by the magic. 
I’m just also imagining if the real Agnes had read this book, how would she feel if she read her life story but interwoven with some (probably) false magic elements just to make it more appealing to the masses or to give her story more suspense? I’m not sure if I’m describing this well, but it just felt like if I was the woman involved here, it’d seem pretty disrespectful to my story and my grief to weave random fantastical elements just to make my story feel more interesting to a random audience. Sure, Agnes lived 500 years ago and is in no danger of feeling disrespected at this point, but the story of mothers/parents being anxious about their child’s health and also the tragedies of mothers/parents having to endure the untimely loss of their children still goes on universally, so I’m seeing it from that perspective as well. 

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