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"Hamnet" | Reviewed by Diane Disbro

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

“Hamnet,” by Irish-born Maggie O'Farrell is domestic fiction, the story of a family. The mother in the book, Agnes, " all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare."

What is unusual about this novel is that the setting is 16th century England and Agnes is the wife of a popular playwright whose name is never given, though readers know it well.

Agnes is a healer, a free spirit who sees in the young man courting her, the son of a glove maker, potential to open up the unbounded, wide world. She marries him, they have children, but he leaves Stratford for London where he can write and perform.

The unhealthy conditions of London make it impossible for the family to live there together. But disease finds them in Stratford, and one of the children dies. How the family handles the death individually and together, and the playwright's powerful, wrenching tribute to the child, make for excellent storytelling.

O'Farrell draws believable characters. Their motivations are realistic. In addition, the reader can see, smell and hear life in Stratford. “Hamnet” surprised me, introduced me to an author I hadn’t previously read. Initially, I had trouble getting into the story until Agnes was introduced but after she appeared on the page, I had trouble putting the book down to live my own life.

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