Maggie O’Farrell has won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction for Hamnet, her novel inspired by the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son.
It was chosen from a shortlist that included the Booker Prize winning Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel , the concluding part of her double Booker winning Wolf Hall trilogy.
In a live digital awards ceremony to mark the prize’s 25th year, chair of judges Martha Lane Fox announced the winner live from London, while fellow judge Paula Hawkins presented the author with the £30,000 prize and the Bessie, a limited-edition bronze figurine, in Edinburgh, where the Coleraine, Co Derry- born writer now lives.
Lane Fox said: “The euphoria of being in the same room for the final judging meeting was quickly eclipsed by the excitement we all feel about this exceptional winner. Hamnet, while set long ago, like all truly great novels expresses something profound about the human experience that seems both extraordinarily current and at the same time, enduring.”
Bea Carvalho, fiction buyer at Women’s Prize retail partner Waterstones, said: “We are thrilled that the Women’s Prize judges have chosen Maggie O’Farrell’s beautiful and heart-breaking Hamnet as the prize’s 25th winner. The last year has seen some stunning fiction by women writers, and Hamnet stands out as a work of immense elegance and emotional heft. We are delighted that we will be able to share it with so many more customers as a result of this well-deserved win.”
In an interview with The Irish Times, O’Farrell said her fascination with the death of Shakespeare’s son began when she learned of it at school while studying Hamlet, and suspected that Hamnet’s death inspired the play. “How could anyone not be knocked for six by something like that? When I set out to write the book, I wanted to give this boy, overlooked by history, a voice and a presence.”
Although not superstitious, she said she could not write the book until her son had passed the age at which Hamnet died. “One of the things that held me back was that I needed my own son to be above the age of 11, the age Hamnet dies. I couldn’t write it in the house, where my children live.”
As The Irish Times reviewer John Self observed, Shakespeare’s wife, “Agnes, not Hamnet, is the real centre of the novel”. O’Farrell confirmed: “The book was originally about fathers and sons, as the play is, but I wondered why Agnes attracted so much criticism, extrapolated from so little.”
The Irish Times review highlighted the parallels with the current pandemic: “Aside from any other universal relevance Hamnet may have, its portrayal of a plague-stricken land seems timely just about now.” He also likened it it to George Saunders’ Booker winning Lincoln in the Bardo: “it gives us a defining moment in a life that may have made the subject into a great man”.
Discussing the Covid crisis, O’Farrell told The Irish Times: “The important thing is to look after each other and see ourselves, our families, our societies as an interlinked organism. When we emerge from this – and we will emerge – we are all going to be different. The whole of society will be reconfigured. We’ll have to adapt and survive. And we will. It’s like an individual going through a severe illness. Anyone who has done that knows you come out the other side a different person, wiser, more aware of your surroundings and your own strength. We’re going to do the same.”
Hamnet, published by Tinder Press, is O’Farrell’s eighth novel. Her previous work, the memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, was a critically acclaimed bestseller. After You’d Gone, her 2000 debut, won the Betty Trask Award, The Distance Between Us (2004) won the Somerset Maugham Award and The Hand that First Held Mine won the 2010 Costa Novel Award.
O’Farrell’s success is the second major prize won by an Irish author in two days. Co Down teenager Dara McAnulty won the Wainwright Prize for nature writing last night for his first book, Diary of a Young Naturalist.