As I experienced this novel as an audiobook, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was NOT confused by the names of all the characters ~ an achievement that shows just what a wonderful writer author Maggie O’Farrell is.
I have often wondered whether the name of Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet and his son’s name Hamnet were connected. Through reading this novel, I now know the names are interchangeable (or at least they were in 16th-century Stratford on Avon.)
In doing some research for a forthcoming novel, I discovered that Hamlet is a transformation of the Scandinavian name Amleth. Some scholars see Amleth playing the role of a trickster in various Medieval legends. Other scholars believe Amleth has more to do with an ancient legend involving a heavenly mill which rotates around the earth’s pole, grinding out salt and soil. The protagonist in this myth is called Amleth or Hamlet, and the whole myth has to do with a deadly whirlpool. (IMHO this legend of Hamlet’s Mill may refer to a deadly event that occurred in the long-distant past. That is a story for another day ~ or you can read my forthcoming novel.)
In any event, many scholars believe that these myths and legends that weave around the name Hamlet/Hamnet are the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s famous play, NOT his son and heir Hamnet Shakespeare.
But in this novel, Maggie O’Farrell takes the opposite point of view, that the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play comes directly from the tragedy surrounding the death of Hamnet, in 1596, when he was around eleven years old. In presenting this point of view, the author draws an achingly beautiful view of the lives of Shakespeare’s long-forgotten wife Anne/Agnes Hathaway, and his three children Susanna, Hamnet and Judith. In Maggie O’Farrell’s hands, Anne/Agnes is transformed from ugly virago who manipulated a young man to marry far too early in life (only to bitterly regret it later) to a fascinating person in her own right.
I loved the beginning of this novel, in which we follow this eccentric young woman who possesses The Sight around her home in Shottery (where she learns to deal with her hostile stepmother), to her marriage to The Latin Tutor, to her making her way in another home of unsympathetic people, (the Shakespeares) which includes an abusive father-in-law.
I loved how this novel was imbued with the sounds and scents of 16th-century Warwickshire, with the cross-currents of families. This novel portrays Shakespeare’s wife as a strong woman who is fiercely protective of her children, and someone finds the will to continue despite her husband’s cruel abandonment. Five Stars.