"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Review: HAMNET---a book club selection and quotes

The cover on my book and on this book differ. The subtitle of mine says, "A Novel of the Plague", where this one says, "A Novel."

I should say at the outset---I loved this book, Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O'Farrell. That said, I recognize that my feelings toward the book may end up being a problem for our upcoming book club discussion. Usually if one person loves a book there is another who hates it then the discussion devolves into squabbling match defending one's opinion rather than discussing the merits or aspects of the book. We'll see if this happens this time.

Hamnet, which I'm assuming many of you know, was William Shakespeare's only son. Little is known about Shakespeare outside of his brilliant plays. It is known that he married Anne (or, according to some records, Agnes) Hathaway when she was 26 and he was 18 and that she was three months pregnant. Together they had three children: Susanna, born six months after their wedding, and twins, Judith and Hamnet, born three years later. Shakespeare's father, James, was a glove maker and for a while was the mayor of Stratford, though later some event occurred that caused him to lose his position and his prestige in the town. William Shakespeare was the oldest living child to his parents, he had several younger brothers and a sister. At the time of their marriage it is likely, though not known for sure, that William and Anne (Agnes) lived in an attached house next to his parents' home. Later, after he had established himself as a playwright and an actor, they moved to a large house (the second largest) in Straford which he bought, though Shakespeare himself was mostly away living and performing in London. Scholars also have found records that both Suzanna and Judith grew up and got married but Hamnet died when he was just eleven years old. It is not known what caused his death but it is very possible that it was due to the Black Death (the bubonic plague), which was a very common cause of death in those days. Four years after the boy's death his father wrote "Hamlet" (a name synonymous with Hamnet) possibly as an homage to the memory of his son. Many consider "Hamlet" to be one of the finest plays ever written. Shakespeare was able to transpose his grief into a masterpiece.

From these few scant details, Maggie O'Farrell has crafted a beautiful and believable story. About her book, Where the World Ends, another fiction book based on scant details of an historic event, Geraldine McCaughrean wrote in her notes, "What you are reading is a true story...and there again, it's not. Fiction is elastic: it stretches to encircle true facts and then crimps them into shape to create Story." Taking the barest of details about Shakespeare and his life and his family, O'Farrell has done the same thing and created an amazing 'Story.'

So why did I like Hamnet so much? First, the book was only tangentially about Shakespeare, who interestingly goes unnamed throughout the book. It is more a book about a marriage, about domestic  life in the late 1500s, and about grief, specifically a parent's grief after the death of a child. Like so many marriages the one between William and Agnes (as she called in the book) is complicated and messy, yet O'Farrell also makes it full of love and passion. The scene where they first make love is in such a unique setting---the apple barn, where the apples twist and jiggle around as the couple are likewise bouncing around. A common enough act gets turned on its head by the action of the apples.

Secondly, though the subtitle mentions that the novel is about the plague, there is really very little about the disease and there are no lengthy, science-y descriptions of the causes and effects of it. There is, however, one very clever 10-page sequence about how the plague reached the Shakespeare children. "For the pestilence to reach Warwicksire, England, in the summer of 1596," O'Farrell writes, "two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet" (140). Then, like a forensic epidemiologist, she charts the original flea and its progeny as they make their way from Alexandria aboard a merchant vessel living on monkeys, cats, midshipmen, glass blowers, and finally entering Stratford on rags designed to keep the glass bobbles safe. Judith happens to be present when the glass bobbles are unpackaged, along with the fleas therein. The transmission of the plague through such an unlikely route seemed terribly prescient today with the transmission of the COVID-19 virus and its variants twirling around the globe. The timeliness of the page 56 quote, too, has struck me. Even in Elizabethan England the Queen knew about social distancing and quarantines. (See below.)

Agnes (Anne) Hathaway is a remarkable character. She is a kind and thoughtful healer who grows her own herbs which she puts to good use in her community. A comparison to Cinderella comes to mind--a hard worker and completely overworked and overlooked. At the moment when her children are falling ill with the plague, she is a mile away dealing with bees which have left their hive and swarmed in a nearby tree. While she is gathering the bees back from the swarm her son Hamnet is running around (see page one quote at bottom of blog post) trying to find her to help his sister Judith, the first to fall ill to the disease. 

Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry ... It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life (9,10).

She will look back on that day with the bees many times.  Though she was unaware of her children's illness, poor Agnes is left to suffer from guilt at not knowing. O'Farrell writes, "There is a part of her that would like to wind up time, to gather it in like yarn. She would like to spin the wheel backwards, unmake the skein of Hamnet's death." But of course she realizes, "There will be no going back. No undoing what was laid out for them. The boy has gone and the husband will leave and she will stay and the pigs will need to be fed every day and time runs only one way" (241). Such profound grief.

Often when I read historical fiction I am struck by how clear the details of life in the by-gone era. It is as if the author has actually stepped back in time to get everything just right. Here O'Farrell helps the reader experience life in the sixteenth century where little is known about the ways diseases are spread and where cleanliness is hard work and then someone throws the contents of the chamber pot out the window. Where people often employed magical thinking and often spoke of seeing ghosts and worried about the dead being lonely. While descriptions of the domestic life of the time were very clear, many of the details of the story are delivered in a dream-like fashion as though the characters were almost sleep-walking through their own lives. Perhaps that is the way life feels after a tragic, untimely death.

I loved the ending even though I wanted the story to go on and on and I didn't want it to end.  As I read the last passage and closed the book, I sighed to myself--"perfect."

As it turns out, it is my turn to lead the discussion this month on Hamnet. Here are a few resources I think will assist me as I prepare for  the club meeting:

(RHS Book Club, March 2021)
Book Beginnings quote: 
A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.
Friday56 quote: 
If the plague comes to London, he can be back with them for months. The playhouses are all shut, by order of the Queen, and no one is allowed to gather in public. It is wrong to wish for plague, her mother said, but Susanna had done this a few times under her breath, at night, after she has said her prayers. She always crosses herself afterwards. But still she wishes it. Her father home, for months, with them.

Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Rose City ReaderShare the opening quote from current book.
e Friday56 is hosted at Freda's VoiceFind a quote from page 56 to share. 

Visit these two websites to participate. Click on links to read quotes from books other people are reading. It is a great way to make blog friends and to get suggestions for new reading material.   




  1. This is only the second review of this book that I've read and both of you loved this book. Great review, thank you!

    1. I remember several people saying this was a favorite book read in 2020. I had to see for myself.

  2. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either. I did love the ending; it was beautiful.

  3. Hamnet sounds like a fascinating book. Great review!

  4. Wow! I am now captivated by the details you have shared, along with the excerpts. I love Maggie O'Farrell's books, but have avoided this one because I don't usually like historical settings. But now I must read it after all! Thanks for sharing and for visiting my blog.

    I also love that book cover!

  5. I've read lots of good things about this book--I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  6. With what's going on in the world today, that 56 gave me chills! Happy memeversary weekend!

  7. Hamnet has been on my list for quite a while but your review here has finally convinced me to just get started on it already! And how sweet is Susanna in the F56? You can totally see a child wishing for this, not aware of the consequences. I hope you have a lovely week and do drop by my Friday post if you have the time! - Juli @ A Universe in Words

  8. Sounds interesting. Great review!

  9. This sounds like such a fascinating read. Your review has me wanting to read it. Thanks for sharing! Hope you have a great weekend! :)

  10. Wow, wonderful review. Hope everyone in your group loves it as well, although it is interesting how some pieces ignite passions in both directions. I've seen some books on GoodReads with an equal number of 5 star and 1 star reviews and seemingly nothing in between. I will keep an eye out for this one.

  11. I'm waiting on my library hold on this one to come in. I'm glad to hear you loved it!

    Lauren @ Always Me

  12. I’m glad you liked it! This book got my attention because it has been on a bunch of award lists. I definitely want to read it. I love historical fiction, and it sounds amazing.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!


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