Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Mid-October rain, which has to be classified as something in between a drizzle and a downpour, has soaked through my jeans and plastered my hair to my head in ropey strands by the time my fiancé and I have returned from our ‘brisk autumn walk’ which we have been promising to take with one another for over a week. Despite the wet, we’re in good spirits and are making the most of our Sunday. For a good portion of the walk I’d been yammering and gushing about the scenery and the various mushrooms we encountered in the birchwood on the far side of our village. I talked ceaselessly and feverishly about my progress in my herbalism studies, and about how I intend to firm them up with a degree or fully accredited course in medical herbalism. My high vibe relationship with the various plant and fungi residents of our local ecology has always lived under the surface of my psyche, keeping me at a delicate precipice of always being ‘one more’ social inconvenience away from a dramatic retreat to a life of solitude in a woodland hovel. I’ve lived with this chaotic mentality for years and years; but at the tail end of the past summer I read a book which changed the way I think about life.

That book was ‘Hamnet’, by Maggie O’Farrell.

It’s important to be clear about something before getting any further into the detail about ‘Hamnet’; it’s NOT a novel about the life and work of William Shakespeare. It’s true that the bard appears frequently in the book, and is referenced throughout, but the story centres on the domestic goings on in the lives of the women of Shakespeare’s family in Stratford-upon-Avon. In particular, the story is about Agnes, known to history as Anne Hathaway, the wife of Shakespeare and the mother of his three children. It is, ultimately, a story about connections, grief, and the ways that different people find comfort and peace in the wake of loss.

Before the story even begins, the reader is made aware of the broad destination: the titular character Hamnet, one of Agnes and William’s younger twins, will die before the novel is out. If you weren’t a Shakespearean scholar or history major, you’re not likely to have known this ahead of beginning the book and it might have been easy for Maggie O’Farrell to call the reader’s bluff and write this death into the story without forewarning. Instead of choosing to do this, O’Farrell instead spends the time between the novel’s beginning and Hamnet’s death weaving a rich and tangled picture of the lives of the characters, allowing us to connect with them and get a sense of their motivations and values. The reader knows what is coming, and this adds a tragic and emotional complexity to the character of Hamnet – we’re mourning for him from the second he is introduced.

Although the story is leading towards this cold outcome, there’s nothing macabre or heavy about the writing used; O’Farrell manages to capture the gentleness of life in spite of the omnipresent threat of loss. The characters play out their lives in a series of small moments backwards and forwards through time in the quintessential peace of an English pastoral tale. Agnes represents something of an outcast, a woman learned in herbal remedies, beekeeping, and animal husbandry. It’s through Agnes that the reader is able to connect most with the abundant natural imagery which feels like the very spine of the story; there’s a seasonality to life which we can always see if we take the time to connect with the world around us. Although Agnes is a woman more at peace in the Warwickshire forests and meadows than in the confines of the town, we see her thrive through a steadfast commitment to her principles and her ‘ways’ which draw from country folk knowledge passed down from her mother and another village elder. Through Agnes we see the strength to resist a world of social and economic chains, and the wisdom to attune with the natural environment in order to thrive throughout the year; a potent lesson which meets the trials of the modern world face on.

A key theme of the novel is, unsurprisingly, grief. O’Farrell’s depiction of the grief of every member of the family in the wake of Hamnet’s death is expertly penned and raw; but under the current of the main story there are masterful representations of other kinds of grief, too. The marriage between Agnes and William is not without its difficulties, and the way in which Maggie O’Farrell manages to capture the sense of loss felt by Agnes in the wake of discovering her husband’s infidelity is so visceral that it hits very hard and close to the bone for anyone who has ever been betrayed in love; O’Farrell not only captures the surface feeling, but also the lingering resentment and the complexity of recovering from such betrayal, expertly tapping into the maddening irrationality which plagues the mind afterward. Whenever William returns from London Agnes can’t bear to be close with him until it feels as though London has ‘washed off him’, for example, which speaks to the experiences of scores of spouses whose men-folk have dabbled when away for work, and the unique hatred and resentment one can feel towards a place or a circumstance by association alone.

The character of Agnes represents, for me, an untellable strength. Hers is the strength not only to survive and learn to live with the death of her child, but also the strength to remain steadfast in principle against the current of a society out of step with ecology. Agnes stands to represent the people of today who flounder in the swirling miasma of late-stage capitalism, desperate to reconnect with ecology and hold fast against the tide of human apathy which erodes our earth a grain at a time. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is feeling defeated by the onslaught of a careless world. ‘Hamnet’ evokes laughter, tears, but most importantly of all, a deep sense of the interconnectedness of all things which is a deeply nourishing remedy for the digital age blues.  


Make Believe

I’m wandering along the short path on the edge of the woods, looking for mushrooms. The leaves have begun to fall from the trees, and little eddies of orange and brown swirl and swish around my shoes as I cross the threshold of the treeline. In my hands I am holding a large copper pot, girthy and round with two looped handles affixed to the rim. I brought it with me to fill with mushrooms, should I find any. I’m holding it in front of me as I walk, my fingers loosely linked over the shining metal. I’m holding it in front of my belly, clasped against my middle so that I can feel the weight of it there. I don’t look down. I don’t look down so that I can make believe that I’m not holding a copper pot under my fingers at all, rather I’m cradling my own belly, swollen with growing life. The limits of my sex mean that I will never have this privilege in real life; but every once and again in the quiet of the forest when there’s no one there to see me, I can make believe for just a little while.

On equinoxes and tipping points: lessons from my daisies

The leaves have not yet all turned their various hues of russet and gold, but as the wind blows through the boughs they rustle crisply – perhaps a little too crisply to be taken still for the waxy leaves of summer. I watch them from the window of my family home, from the sitting room which looks out into the garden. My grandfather is dozing in his armchair not three feet from me. As we sit, I’m thinking about the stew I am planning for the dinner, considering where I might find good apple juice to drink with the meal, or which bread to buy. Such are the small moments of an autumn equinox, the moments we should all take time for as the seasons pass into the dark half of the year and all of us begin to take stock of what has been and what is left to come.

I listen to the babble of the starlings and think about the summer we are leaving behind – sun-baked days of swimming in the river near my home, gathering woodland chanterelles early in the season with friends, heady evenings wandering the back roads and fishing flowers from the hedgerows with the taste of wine on my lips… so many moments made precious by the instinctual understanding that if we don’t take the time to reconnect with our world now, we will lose the chance forever. Mabon, or the autumn equinox, is a tipping point. The day is equal parts light and dark, about to tip into the stillness of death which is intricately bound up in the slumbering dark of the womb; of gestation, the promise of rebirth. I think about the other tipping point which we have reached in our planet: the climate emergency. I think about how we risk slipping into a dark spell of our own making, and how that, at least for our species, this darkness does not come with the promise of rebirth come the spring.

I notice that some of the leaves have begun to fall from the trees framing the edges of the yard and think about the hedgehog who makes nightly appearances at the bottom of the garden (I affectionately named him Lord Urchin when he disturbed me in the arbour one late spring night). He, and other creatures like him, will be making their preparations soon, piling leaves and twigs and creating a sanctuary in which to spend the cold winter months. Despite the differences in our anatomy and lifestyles, Lord Urchin and I are no different in this regard; I too need to make my preparations, and while mine are perhaps far more banal than my erinaceous friend’s, they are nonetheless essential for my survival and that of my species. I am speaking of the lifestyle changes I must make in order to contribute actively to a sustainable world.

Peering through the panes, I look hard to see if the swallows are still around. I saw them only days ago and hope they haven’t gone yet – though I know it will be soon if they haven’t. The swallows who nest in the washhouse, coal shed, garage, have returned here every year, to the same little nests in the rafters and eaves in a fascinating display of instinctual awareness. Generations of the same family navigating their way home without GPS or google, or even an old-fashioned paper map folded neatly under flight feathers. If the swallows could teach us something, it would be a simple knowing, an ability to surrender to instinct and a faith that we will always find our way home. I’m thinking now about how we humans find our way home. Indeed, where did we lose our way? Was it the advent of plastics? The rise of mechanised agriculture? Pesticides? Nuclear Weapons? I don’t think the answer lies in any one of these symptoms, but in something more primitive and pervasive – an originate disease which will, if left untreated, lead to a graceless death. I think it was when we lost our empathy.

Who can teach us about empathy? Who can help us to get back what we have lost? Is it the bees who hum from plant to plant gathering and giving? Could it be the ants who live on the low half wall overgrown with honeysuckle, who farm the aphids for their sweet ‘honeydew’ excretion? Maybe it’s the black cat who takes a languid promenade through the flowerbeds a few times each day, and watches the little hedge-birds with malignant half interest? I think about all these residents and visitors of the garden and admire them for their many qualities – but who can really teach us empathy? And then my eyes alight on the bush of daisies I have been nurturing in the strip of earth set aside for me at the Northern edge of the garden, my ‘nature strip’ as my Aunt calls it. My daisies, the ones I found growing haphazardly through the gravel at the edge of the house. My daisies, who I replanted in the soft earth of my nature strip. My daisies who I visit every day to check what change may have come over them each time the wheel turns toward the dark season. My daisies who have yielded delicate sprays of flower heads which I’ve bobby-pinned into my blonde quiff when I’ve had to go into work or the grocery store and face people; at times where those things felt like insurmountable obstacles, my daisies rode along in my hair and kept me company throughout the day. Wildflowers will grow without any input from we humans, and while I know that neither I nor the flowers need each other to survive, I also know that in a world of shrinking fields and hedgerows and burgeoning sheets of concrete and metal, we can certainly help each other to thrive. And I do believe that a day spent tending flowers in the garden can help to reconnect a body not only with the earth, but with our purpose on the planet. Years from now, when my children ask me where I learned the most about empathy, I will tell them without a hint of irony that I learned it from my daisies.  

Ophelia: Agency Reclaimed

I must have scrolled past Claire McCarthy’s ‘Ophelia’ at least a hundred times before I absently selected it for watching on an uncommonly dull Saturday afternoon. I was probably subconsciously railing against the idea of sitting through any kind of Shakespearean remake, imagining something lifeless and oppressive, full of grey stone buildings, heavy body armour, and boorish swordfights.

It took less than a minute of watching for me to regret my obstinance and fall entirely under the spell of this delicate and delightful movie.

Anyone who has read ‘Hamlet’, or seen it played out, will know that a film centring on the character of Ophelia is likely to conjure some heavy stuff. Ophelia is desperately maltreated by her peers (and in particular the men of the court) until she is ultimately driven to madness and an untimely death which some have read as a tragic suicide. Used by her father and the wicked King Claudius, Ophelia is measured the whole way through the play by her affinity to male characters. Indeed, at her own funeral, a shoving war is started between her brother and her lover over the subject of who loved her more. That a woman could inform so many events that shaped the tale of Hamlet and yet be robbed of any kind of agency or dignity in the telling of the story seems an unfair way to leave the matter, and as such it is needful there should be a retelling in which Ophelia is given the agency and power she deserves.

People who are puritanical about their Shakespearean subject matter might be more than a little put out by the liberties taken in retelling the story, but if you can leave any preconceptions about how the tale should be told at the door, this film is a true delight. The cinematography is a marvel and serves to show off the stunning craftwork that has given the movie it’s saturating feel. Any fears I had harboured of an ultra-masculine and cynical aesthetic were happily dashed from the get-go with everything being flowers, natural light, brightly coloured fabrics, urns full of herbs, and glittering headdresses. This story is told as much by the setting as it is by the actors who navigate it, a true impression of life which stimulates every sense. You can almost smell the lavender and thyme potted in the castle’s hallways, the garden florals in the courtyard, and the damp earth of the forest, simply through seeing them presented so viscerally and vibrantly on screen. If you listen carefully to the vocals in the music at the climax of the film, you will recognise the words as coming from Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia in the original play. This isn’t a movie you can ‘get’ by simply watching- you have to drink it, like a heady wine; and like a heady wine, it is intoxicating.

The botanical feel of the film is not only limited to the setting but crops up significantly in dialogue in the reimagined scene where Ophelia gifts flowers and herbs to members of the court in a fit of madness. The student herbalist in me was purring with glee as Ophelia meted out flowers and explained their symbolic values, metaphorically distributing absolution, compassion, and condemnation to the other characters around her.

I read a review of ‘Ophelia’ a short while after watching which was derisive and mocking, lauding some of the artistic liberties taken as ‘bizarre’, though I vehemently disagree with this take. It was suggested in this review that there was not enough of an emotional response to the killing of Ophelia’s father, however the intricacies of this relationship are not explored in any detail within the film and one couldn’t guess as to how close the pair are actually expected to be. I can’t help but laugh at the pseudo-outrage from a white male film critic that there wasn’t enough outcry at the slaying of the titular character’s father who, it bears remembering, used his daughter for political advantage in the original play. This is not a movie about the veneration of male ego, and it is delightfully refreshing in that regard. To have it derided as ‘laughable’ and ‘boring’ by such a critic feels almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, a small victory come from holding a mirror up to the patriarchy and asking it to recognise itself. Let the tantrums ensue.

Ophelia is not the only female character to be given back her agency in this retelling: Queen Gertude is also given power in ways which make the tale all the richer and more believable. In the original play, Gertrude meets her end when she unwittingly drinks from a poisoned chalice left out by her nefarious husband who is killed by Hamlet, her son, in an act of revenge. In Claire McCarthy’s masterful retelling, Gertrude takes up the sword of her murdered son and has the last word on the matter when she runs her husband through herself, then intentionally drinks poison – no more the unwitting victim of a man’s power play, instead the complex and multifaceted woman with layers of motivation and a twisted backstory. It is arguably Gertrude who has the most significant arc of the movie; and if you didn’t get goose-bumps watching her knifing Claudius then you probably want to get your sensory system checked out.

Hamlet is perhaps most famed for the existentialism conjured in that cliched question: to be or not to be? It is noteworthy that this line did not make an appearance in ‘Ophelia’, yet another intentional degree of separation from a story which was, originally, full of male angst. This movie, again, is not about the veneration of male ego. This is a movie about complex women; women who were always complex and deserve to finally be seen for it.