Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet is a novel that tries so desperately hard to be a good novel that its very attempts to be good end up making it that much worse.

When it comes to Hamnet, the beginning and end of it is: O’Farrell’s writing doesn’t work, so nothing else does. The best word I can use to describe the writing is laboured. You cannot go a single paragraph without being bombarded by a tide of superfluous, overwrought prose. And it’s not necessarily that O’Farrell’s writing is bad, it’s just that there’s too much of it; the whole novel is bogged down in its own excessively ornate writing.

Because the writing is so unrelentingly verbose, the pacing in Hamnet suffers, and suffers badly. I just wanted O’Farrell to MOVE ON. I don’t need to know that Shakespeare’s hunger was like a rat snarling in his stomach or the names of the 500 different types of herbs that Agnes uses, I just need for the story to please, please move on.

Also, the character work is abysmal, just all over the place. From a storytelling perspective, Agnes is an almost intrinsically bad character. The whole thing about Agnes’s character in this novel is that she Knows everything. Because she possesses some kind of sixth sense, she’s able to see into the future and read people’s minds. And most of the time, she’s not wrong about either of those things. Even the novel itself makes this explicit,

“Bartholomew nods. ‘Now, I can’t pretend to understand her choice, in marrying you, but I do know one thing about my sister. You want to know what it is?’
‘She is rarely wrong. About anything. It’s a gift or a curse, depending on who you ask.’

I’m sorry, but why would I want to read about a character who knows everything all the time and who is very rarely wrong????? I can’t tell you how much it irritated me that in most cases Agnes could just tell what someone had done or what would happen to them just by looking at them. Not only is that incredibly boring, but it’s also just such lazy writing. Instead of actually having characters properly talk to each other or try to evaluate each other’s feelings, you just make one of them psychic and bam everything is automatically solved!

(And I know the fact that the one thing that Agnes is wrong about is the death of her son, Hamnet, which makes it that much more devastating, but STILL, that doesn’t negate the fact that for the rest of the novel, she was an incredibly boring character to read about.)

Agnes, at least, had some character development, even if it was bad. All the other characters were pretty much just there to be there. Also, there was instalove, and instalove of the most annoying, vanilla kind. Agnes sees Shakespeare for the first time, she touches his hand, can tell through her Magical Powers that he’s a good person or something (?) and then what do you know they’re in love! Pass.

Hamnet was just not that good. The pacing was glacial, the writing was overwrought, and the characters were irritating at best and non-entities at worst. Definitely not for me.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!


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  1. Great review (I love a good negative review hahah). I’m sorry this ended up not working for you! The pacing really was glacial, though lol. I especially felt that way during the first half of the novel, because we already KNEW that William and Agnes were going to fall in love/get married/have children and that Hamnet was going to die.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lol thank you!! i kinda love writing negative reviews too bc i can be v specific with what i didnt like. and YES i totally agree – we basically know the entire plot of the novel from start to finish so i didnt know why it took so long to get to where it was headed…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Just finished this book and I have to agree with this review. I found myself starting to skip along the pages just to move things along. I too found the writing overblown. I did like the ending where Agnes gets to see Hamlet on stage at the Globe but even this was described in such an overwrought fashion I found it hard to take seriously. As a male I also found it difficult to decide just what O’Farrell was trying to say about the character of Shakespeare himself. A man who fell deeply in love with Anne (Agnes) Hathaway and contrived with her to have a child so they could marry but then became for the most part an absent father who cared more about making money than visiting his family back in Stratford. Only to express all the pent up deep grief for his lost son, (that we had never seen an inkling of) in writing Hamlet four years later.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. yeah it was a very disappointing book altogether…for me it was the writing that kind of overshadowed everything because it was just so overblown, like you said. πŸ€·β€β™€οΈ


    1. yeah i definitely had that problem too – without the link to shakespeare the book just reads like a standard historical fiction πŸ€·β€β™€οΈ


      1. Horrid book. Agree that it’s like she used a Thesaurus to construct every sentence. Over and over and over. Why not read the real Shakespeare for some literary bliss? Mad that I had to read this stupid historical fiction for a book club. Beth

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I had a very different experience with this one because I got on with the writing style a bit better, but your dislikes echo the flaws I saw as well. I haven’t read any more of O’Farrell’s work yet, but I’ve heard from other readers this might be one of her weakest pieces, which leaves me curious about how different her style and approach of subject might be in her other works!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you!! yeah I haven’t read anything from Maggie O’Farrell other than this book and This Must Be the Place, which I enjoyed a lot more. Not sure whether I wanna read more of her work after Hamnet though…her writing just doesnt seem to click with m

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, that’s too bad. It is definitely hard to find something you like from an author whose style just isn’t the right fit for you though, so I can understand that choice. I am glad you had better luck with This Must Be the Place though!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. That was my response, too, From the beginning, I felt she was straining for high art, but poetic sentences and a raft of researched details can’t take the place of a sense of intimacy with a character. I just couldn’t keep reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yes, exactly!! if the writing isnt in service of the story then it starts detracting from it and all youre left with is a bunch of characters you dont much care about…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As you say we are all entitled to our opinions. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. You are obviously a far superior human being to me. I would have no worries flipping burgers. When you consider we all end up as fodder for worms it’s as worthy as any other job. Cheers Paul


    1. I love this novel for its depiction of daily life (hardly what I’d call “overblown” in its descriptions) but also for the curiosity it satisfies in Shakespeare fans who have always wondered about the gap between his family in Stratford and his residence in London–historical fiction with a real sense of presence in the setting and w/ just enough detail from the setting for the characters to blend into, w/o a labored and obligatory lot of attention to period furnishings that I expect from historical fiction.


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