Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet (2020)

I was never into the works of Shakespeare. Even, first, as a high school senior, when I was tasked to report on Taming of the Shrew, and later on, as a young librarian, when I was cataloging volumes after volumes of donations, Shakespeare was not something that interested me. I am simply not into classics.

That I chose to read fiction based on Shakespeare is a surprise, even to me. I have not read a book for a long time; two years, to be exact. YouTube’s algorithm must have sensed this, thought I needed help in rekindling my love for books, and decided that Jack Edwards should pop up on my recommended. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, if I remember correctly, is on top of his should-read list.

I already had high hopes for this book before I started reading because of the rave reviews on the internet and I was not disappointed. First, it is so beautifully written. Here are my favorites:

A New York Times review used the perfect descriptive: melodic. For one, I stay away from romance precisely because I cringe at the way they show sex but not here. I am not including further spoilers but it is… breathtaking.

Second, the characters are alive. I do not just mean that they were based off of real people, but each of them breathed, felt, and thought as if they are here, right now, with the reader. I usually do not enjoy stories with multiple points of view, but every character is its own person that it is impossible not to, at least, tolerate, and many times, empathize.

Perhaps the reason the book resonated with me is that, like our protagonist Agnes, I am a wife and a mother now. Hamnet is a story of a woman, a wife, and a mother dealing with, among others, the death of her child. It reminded me of my grief, helplessness, and desperation when, two weeks after giving birth to my daughter, our city recorded its first pediatric case of this current pandemic. Also, it was not hard to picture myself in the different points of her life because I imagine myself similar to her in many, many ways.

The book demonstrated a mastery of restraint. Yes, no detail was left hanging. Yes, everything received its closure. Yes, the story spanned decades. Yes, there are multiple points of view but nothing is unnecessary. Everything has its place and is in its place.

Finally – and I think this is one of the most beautiful things about the novel – it ended the way it began: with us watching Hamnet.

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