Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell hops around a bit time wise but not in a confusing way, I really enjoyed it.
The tale begins in 1596 with young Hamnet searching the house, looking for an adult to help him, but the usually bustling household is empty, just when he needs them most. His twin Judith feels so ill that she’s gone to her bed and he’s desperate for their mother’s help as she is a herbalist, and a bit of a white witch as far as some people are concerned.
Then the story flits back fifteen years to the Spring when Shakespeare met his wife at Hewlands, the family farm. They were both leading unhappy lives, William’s father was a violent bully who took most of his rage out on William, and Agnes (known better to us all as Anne Hathaway) was living with her step-mother and a houseful of half siblings. It hadn’t been too awful when her father was alive but life had become miserable since his death. The two were drawn to one another when William’s father ordered him to tutor some of Agnes’s half brothers, to help pay back debts. Agnes and William would become each other’s escape route – or so they thought.
Considering that such a lot of Shakespeare’s life is a complete mystery I think the author made a good job of filling in the gaps in a feasible way, and she neatly tied up the speculation over his will and that second best bed left to his wife. I loved the ending which paints William as a loving father, something that even his wife had doubted.
I noticed that some readers have been upset by the fact that Anne’s name had been changed to Agnes, but it’s a name which is not popular, it was my own mother’s name, she was dutifully named after a grandmother but was always called Nancy by everyone, so it seems very likely to me that Ann was her pet name, perhaps O’Farrell should just have stuck with that rather than reverting to the official name which appears in her father’s will.