Women’s Prize for Fiction: Maggie O’Farrell wins for Hamnet, about Shakespeare’s son

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O’Farrell’s other novels include This Must Be the Place and After You’d Gone

Author Maggie O’Farrell has won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for Hamnet, a novel inspired by and named after William Shakespeare’s only son.

The Northern Irish writer beat Hilary Mantel, Bernardine Evaristo and three other authors to the £30,000 prize.

Hamnet is a fictionalised account of the life of the Bard’s son, who died in 1596 when he was just 11.

Chair of judges Martha Lane Fox praised the book for expressing “something profound about the human experience”.

She 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.”

O’Farrell is the 25th recipient of the prize, which was first presented as the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996. Previous winners include Eimear McBride, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy.

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Joe Willis played Hamnet Shakespeare in the BBC comedy Upstart Crow

‘Beautifully written and intensely moving’

By Rebecca Jones, BBC arts correspondent

It must have been a particularly tough call spurning the Booker winners Hilary Mantel and Bernardine Evaristo. But Maggie O’Farrell is a worthy winner.

Hamnet is a beautifully written and intensely moving novel about grief and loss. But don’t let that put you off.

It is also a richly drawn and immersive portrait of life in 16th Century England, from the smells of bread rolls baking in a hot kitchen to the sight of bees teeming on a honeycomb.

It is clever too. Shakespeare is never named. This is a book about a woman and her three children – and their lives are vividly imagined.

And it is timely. Plague killed Hamnet in 1596 and there is a gripping chapter exploring how the disease reaches Stratford via a flea on a monkey in Alexandria and a glassmaker in Venice.

Trade and travel are to blame and parallels with the current pandemic are unavoidable.

Evaristo was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction for Girl, Woman, Other, which shared last year’s Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.

Mantel’s nomination came for The Mirror and the Light, the conclusion to her trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell.

This is the fourth time the two-time Booker winner has missed out on the award, having been previously shortlisted in 2006, 2010 and 2013.

Angie Cruz, Natalie Haynes and Jenny Offill were also nominated for Dominicana, A Thousand Ships and Weather respectively.

This year’s award ceremony was to have taken place on 3 June, but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wednesday’s virtual event saw O’Farrell named the winner in London and given her award in her home town of Edinburgh.

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