2020 releases · women's prize for fiction

Women’s Prize Reviews #9: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Read an exclusive extract from Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet | Blogs & features  | Shakespeare's GlobeWe’re back with Women’s Prize reads! I abandoned my reading of the longlist, and was determined to finish reading the shortlist, so here we are. I might end up not reading one final book from the shortlist (I know you completionists will  judge me, but I just don’t care). I am now in the middle of Girl, Woman, Other (and I am loving it), but just before that I finally picked up Hamnet. I was kinda iffy from the start with it, because I just don’t like Historical Fiction. There’s something about the writing style and the general feel of it that I can’t stand. BUT everyone was loving Hamnet so much, and I was moderately excited to try and see how I like it. Sad to report that I still don’t like Historical Fiction. And I just did not like this period. 

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A Serious Case of Overwritting

This is a general problem I have with historical fiction and something I always attribute to the genre – I constantly felt like this story was overwritten and that the narrative, the characters, the core idea was just bogged down by superfluous writing. To be fair, I am sure there’s a reader out there who will like to read WHOLE paragraphs about the muscle between the thumb and the forefinger but I am just not that reader. It’s not even that I cannot appreciate descriptive writing, I can, I just did not find this book to be particularly enchanting even with it’s ornate writing. Full disclosure, I just found it boring. Sorry to this book, but I did. For me personally, it’s not just that I did not vibe with how this was written, but that I felt like everything else suffered because of it.

Can We Move On?

Because I found the writing so unnecessarily overwritten, the pacing also suffered in my opinion. Constantly I felt like we were moving on slowly without any real reason, and I felt like we were just not getting to the meat of the story. We did get there eventually, and I definitely enjoyed the second part of this novel more, but we just took to long to get there, and by the time I started getting more into the story, I just could not have cared less. While I did find the exploration of grief really well written, I wish we focused on that more, instead of spending so much time on stuff I felt added nothing to the story.

What Character Work?

We all already know that if  I don’t care about the characters, that I just won’t enjoy the book, and that’s what happened here. The characters felt really flat to me, and I just did not find them to be all that well developed. Personally, Agnes felt like a character I have read about before in dozens of books – this sort of wild, all-knowing intuitive force. And while I do enjoy that character archetype, I just don’t think that anything new or fresh was added to it. Consequently, she just did not feel real to me at all, and I could not really connect to her in any way. Moreover, because she was so all-knowing and intuitive, it really made all her relationships and interactions with people boring. If you have a character that intuitively knows everything, you will fail at writing her compellingly in relationship to other people. While I get the point behind it (we’ll get to that in a second), I just don’t think it made her an interesting character to care about.

The rest of the characters felt really inconsequential and irrelevant and I cannot really tell you anything about them. Shakespeare’s character was also not interesting (again, I get it, will talk about it in a bit), but I just feel like choices were made that were supposed to have a specific narrative impact and then the characters suffered for that. And then the narrative wasn’t that interesting either.

What Was the Reason?  

Ultimately, for me, this book failed to do what it set out to do. For example, one of the reasons why Agnes is this super intuitive, all-knowing character is because the fact that she does not see what happens to Hamnet is that more devastating. But I feel like by the time we had gotten to the exploration of family grief, the book already went on for 200 pages in which Agnes was just frustrating.

Similarly to that, I get that having Shakespeare always referred to by the relationships he had with other people is a feat to understand why so little is known about his family and their life, and to sort of bring the focus to that. But I just think this book does not deliver on that. I found the courtship between Agnes and Shakespeare so instant, and this sort of contrived fate thing that was in line with her character, which annoyed me and did not make for an interesting read, and yet a lot of the book focuses on that.

The book definitely shined in bringing the emotional aspect of losing a child to life in a realistic way, but that was just the ending of the novel that did not make up for the rest of it in my opinion.

verdict

I would not personally recommend this one. It was overwritten and for me, it ultimately did not deliver on what it set out to do.

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I would love to hear from you! Have you read this one yet? Are you in the majority that loved it or are you here on the dark side with me? Let me know in the comments!

In the meantime, happy reading

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20 thoughts on “Women’s Prize Reviews #9: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. I was very disappointed by this one. I’m a big O’Farrell fan but I think her contemporary fiction tends to be a lot better than her historical novels. And totally agree about Agnes being an annoying archetype!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I had such a good time reading this one but I totally understand your criticisms. I also felt that the book did not quite achieve what it set out to do, which I was able to accept mostly because I did enjoy the writing and the grief. I would fully agree that it’s flowery and unnecessarily ornate and I expected to not like that, but somehow it worked for me. Maybe because I read this one close to the end of the (very disappointing) longlist, I was a little too ready to enjoy anything, haha. I’m glad you’re liking GWO at least! That’s a great one to end on, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ouch! Oh well… I guess this type of historical fiction just isn’t for you – totally understandable. Sorry, but I adored this book and it is so far my #1 favorite of 2020. Brava to you for reading all of the short list, though. I’m afraid none of the others interest me all that much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely not for me, I can totally see why you loved it! Ah, I still haven’t actually read the rest of the shortlist (no one likes Dominicana so I am so hesitant to pick it up, and The Mirror and the Light is a third book in a historical fic series so I had to pass), but definitely the whole longlist was underwhelming for me. I am glad you found at least one you loved!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Go figure these prize lists, right? There’s always a few that we get pissed off because they don’t show up, and then get even more pissed off at books we don’t find worthy that get on the list.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Okay I am inclined to agree with everything you said so far, although for me it’s still a 3-ish star experience! But let’s see in another *checks notes* 400 goddamn pages how I feel about it. It’s just… so slow. So. Slow.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. i felt exactly the same way about this omg. “because she was so all-knowing and intuitive, it really made all her relationships and interactions with people boring” YESSSSSS i was SO frustrated !!!! like she’s such an intrinsically BAD character in terms of narrative because she just automatically knows everything??? the whole point of characters interacting is to try to tease out the complexities of those interactions (how is character A reacting to character B and vice versa) but if Agnes just knows everything then theres nothing to read about ?? it was also v irritating lol

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This book has been tediously slow and I started thinking something was wrong with me because I just can’t stand it haha. I’m listening to in on audiobook in an attempt to finish it for a book club with the two of my best friends, otherwise I would’ve given up one chapter in, HA!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The choice of writing in the present tense I found artificial and it blocked the flow of writing along with her formula of asking multiple questions in a row to propel the narrative. A bit like telling us what to think rather than showing. The characters were shallow in development. Do you really have a clear depth of understanding of the boy, Hamnet. And I found it forced to always refer to Shakespeare as the husband.

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