By Maggie O’Farrell
320 pp. Vintage. $17.
What can I say about this that you don’t already know? I’m not sure, so I’ll start by telling you what you likely already do.
“Hamnet” is a fictionalized account of the death of Hamnet, the son of William Shakespeare, a death scholars have said possibly inspired Shakespeare’s most famous play, “Hamlet,” which we are told here is so similar a name to Hamnet as to be almost indistinguishable from it.
The actual reasons for Hamnet’s death are unknown, but Maggie O’Farrell has him dying of plague, stating in her author’s note at the end of the book that Hamnet’s death from plague is a real possibility given the prevalence of it in England at the time.
So, going in, you know that “Hamnet” is going to die. Even if you don’t know anything about Shakespeare’s family, it’s right there on the book jacket.
Is there a point in reading this if you’re not an avid Shakespeare fan? Sure!
While the claim, made by some reviewers, that Shakespeare hardly plays any role here is most certainly false (he’s one of the most prominent characters in the second of two plot lines threading through the book, and his near-constant absence in the first is frequently remarked upon, even if the elder Shakespeare is nowhere mentioned by name), the writing is consistently lovely and the story engrossing enough to keep you invested, even if you already know the outcome beforehand.
One of the chapters I enjoyed most here hypothesizes on how the plague was transmitted to England. Fascinating to read, particularly in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“Hamnet” is, obviously, a tragedy, one that will be particularly felt by those who have children of their own. For the rest of us, though, it is still certainly worth the ride.