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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell [in Booklist]

Here’s what we might know – or agree on from limited historic documents and scholarly guessing research – about the Bard’s wife: she’s commonly named “Anne Hathaway” but her father referred to her as “Agnes” in his will; she was older than her still-teenage husband; they were pregnant when they married; the pair had three children, Susanna and twins Judith and Hamnet; Shakespeare left his family in Stratford while he wrote and toured; one of the frequent bubonic plague outbreaks killed Hamnet at 11; and Shakespeare would memorialize – and extend – the boy’s brief life in Hamlet. From such ‘facts,’ bestselling Edinburgh-based Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell (I Am, I Am, I Am, 2017) imagines stupendous historical fiction, returning Agnes’ voice to the ever-growing Shakespeare-inspired apocryphal library.

Relative newbie but already award-winning British narrator Ell Potter is O’Farrell’s effortless, perfect cipher. She’s notably affecting as Agnes, overwhelmed by love, maternally devoted, achingly betrayed. As Shakespeare, maligned by his vicious father, a part-time husband and parent, she embodies an arrogant artist too soon too sure of his own glory. As Hamnet, she evokes a boy desperate to save his twin sister, who is originally felled by illness.

From a story of two lovers each escaping family dysfunction, to a portrait of a devolving marriage, to the pixilating of familial bonds, to an accounting of the playwright made successful by personal betrayal, O’Farrell and Potter alchemize aural magic.

Review: “Media,” Booklist, October 1, 2020

Readers: Adult

Published: 2020


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