Our January 2021 Sip & Read Book Club Pick is "Hamnet"

Ashley Leath
·4 min read
Photo credit: Victor Maze
Photo credit: Victor Maze

From Veranda

Welcome to the VERANDA Sip & Read Book Club! Each month, we dive in to a book and offer exclusive conversations with the authors behind each tale over on Instagram, along with a perfectly matched cocktail. This month's pick is Maggie O'Farrell's "Hamnet," a new imagining of the young son whose untimely death inspires one of the greatest plays of all time. Get caught up on our past book club selections here.

It is the late 16th century, and we are in Stratford, England, following a light-on-his-feet young boy as he skids through hallways, scuffs the leather of his boots, leaps stairs, bounds with the frenetic energy of a mission of much importance: He is searching for his mother. His twin sister has fallen ill, and he knows he must find help.

This is Hamnet, the sparklingly imagined namesake of Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel, and the boy who's untimely death goes on to inspire the great play Hamlet by his father, William Shakespeare. The novel deftly weaves together the tale of not just Hamnet but his entire family—and how a single moment can reshape an entire lifetime. In doing so, O'Farrell outlines in beautifully evocative language the process through which art imitates, and is inspired by, life.

In alternating timelines that shift from past to present without a single hitch, O'Farrell introduces us to Hamnet and his sisters, Judith and Susanna, by situating the love story of their parents amid a moment of impending tragedy. We see that Shakespeare's wife, Agnes, is tending to her bees while her son searches for her with a gripping, mounting desperation, and we see Agnes as a young woman, slipping from the comfort of the forest with a kestrel perched upon her arm, soon to meet Shakespeare for the first time. Rather than align the story with its most known character, O'Farrell asks the reader to pay attention to those who surrounded Shakespeare and helped shape him into the playwright he became.

The result of this is a first-class novel, a story centered not on the male figure but the equally as powerful and moving female one, Agnes, whose journey into womanhood and motherhood stands as the evocative, emotional spine of the novel. Agnes is a mystery to everyone around her: to her in-laws, her stepmother, the townspeople, and (bewitchingly) to Shakespeare.

Photo credit: duncan1890
Photo credit: duncan1890

Yet O'Farrell's account brings her into focus, drawing out the peticulars that made her who she was on her own, not simply as an aside to Shakespeare's life. Her fierce protectiveness as a mother, her will and desire to fight the hands of death as they knock upon her family's door, go on to inform her reaction to the tragedy that awaits and the relationship between husband and wife. It is Agnes and Shakespeare's love story alongside their grief at their son's sudden passing (by bubonic plague, O'Farrell imagines here) that provides us the context for the emotional backdrop that reshapes the family and ultimately forms the backbone for Shakespeare's Hamlet.

It is possible to read Hamnet as a story about how grief inspires art, and this is true. But Hamnet is also the story of how life—and even more so, love—inspires art. In focusing the reader's attention toward the sights, sounds, and tastes of the domestic lives inside a home in Statford, a fresh depiction of Elizabethan England unfolds, leaving the hectic chaos of London for another tale. For this is the story of what happens in the folds and creases of life, what primes the possibility of our greatest creations. As O'Farrell writes toward the end, from Shakespeare's perspective, the play Hamlet "moves through him—this one, more than any other he has ever written—as blood through his veins." O'Farrell does what Shakespeare's ghost has asked of us—to remember him—and in Hamnet, she asks us to do the same.


Selection: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell (available via local booksellers, Amazon, or Bookshop)
Start reading with us January 2.
Send Maggie your questions via VERANDA's
Instagram Stories.
Tune in to Instagram as Maggie answers your questions and chats live about
Hamnet on January 29.

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