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!