This novel came highly recommended to me and I can see why. A reimagining of the life of William Shakespeare’s family—focused primarily on his wife, Agnes, and his son, Hamnet—the writing in this novel is almost as lyrical and eloquent as the Bard of Avon himself delivered.
Although I found the beginning was overwritten and a bit hard to get into, soon enough I became deeply absorbed. The beauty and power of the writing carried the novel during those times the narrative could not.
This novel centers on grief: how Agnes and her husband, who is never named other than being referred to as the “Latin tutor”, individually and together deal with the death of their son Hamnet, who succumbs to the plague (a fitting theme for 2020). I’m giving nothing away here: the novel begins with a historical note about Hamnet dying at age eleven.
This telegraphing, which occurs several times over the course of the novel regarding other events, such as when Agnes gives birth to the twins Hamnet and Judith, is the story’s weakness, and made me impatient at times because O’Farrell attempts to create suspense where none exists.
Example: having Judith near death due to the plague and then Hamnet being the one that dies– while an amazing sequence of writing and turn of events–didn’t carry the suspense it could have.
However, so powerful was the exploration and impact of grief, the details of life and living conditions in the 16th century, and Agnes herself. She was such a strong, vivid character, as were her brother Bartholomew, stepmother Joan, father-in-law John, and both Hamnet and Judith.
The ending is perfectly done, but I won’t give this part away, because the author doesn’t either.