Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell wins $51K Women's Prize for Fiction

The novel by the Irish author is published as Hamnet and Judith in Canada. The annual U.K. prize recognizes the year's best novel written by a woman in English.

The novel by the Irish author is published as Hamnet and Judith in Canada

Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell won the 2020 Woman's Prize for Hamnet. The 2020 novel is titled Hamnet and Judith in Canada. (Francois Guillot/AFP via Getty Images)

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell has won the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction, a £30,000 ($51,292 Cdn) prize, for expressing "something profound about the human experience."

Now in its 25th year, the annual U.K. prize recognizes the year's best novel written by a woman in English.

O' Farrell's novel Hamnet, published as Hamnet & Judith in Canada, reimagines the life and death of William Shakespeare's only son during Elizabethan England.

Set during the Black Death pandemic in 16th-century England, Hamnet & Judith explores a story of love and loss through the eyes of Agnes, her husband and three children named Susanna, Hamnet and Judith. 

In the book, Shakespeare is never named. When Hamnet tragically dies during the pandemic at the age of 11, his father writes a play titled Hamlet four years later. 

O'Farrell is an Irish-British novelist. She is the author of a memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am, and eight novels, including After You'd GoneThe Distance Between Us and This Must Be the Place. She won the 2010 Costa Novel Award for her novel The Hand That First Held Mine.

On Sept. 13, 2020, O'Farrell will be interviewed by Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel. 

Writers & Company airs at 3 p.m. ET & AT, 3:30 p.m. NT, 5 p.m. PT, MT & CT.

The 2020 winner announcement was conducted as a virtual online event broadcasting from London.  The announcement was previously postponed in light of COVID-19.

"When I originally wrote the story, I thought it would be about fathers and sons," said O'Farrell during the virtual event.

"I got sort of slightly sidetracked, when I was doing my research, about how badly [Shakespeare's wife Agnes) has been treated by history and academia. We've been told this narrative constantly, through all different types of writing, that she was this strumpet who lured this genius boy into marriage. I feel it was so unfair. I wanted to give her a voice in writing," said O'Farrell.

"The impetus behind the book was always that I wanted this boy Hamnet, who has contributed in a huge, significant amount to English literature. Without him, I don't think we have Hamlet or Twelfth Night. But also… I wanted to present readers with a new version. Perhaps their marriage is a partnership."

The 2020 finalists were selected by a panel of five judges, chaired by Martha Lane Fox and made up of Scarlett Curtis, Melanie Eusebe, Viv Groskop and Paula Hawkins.

The novelist's new memoir chronicles a series of harrowing close calls — like an encounter with a serial killer, a beachside robbery by a machete-wielding thief, and almost bleeding to death in childbirth.

"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," said the jury chair Martha Lane Fox during the virtual event.

There were five other books on the shortlist: Dominicana by Angie Cruz, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel and Weather by Jenny Offill.

The 2019 winner was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Other past winners include Kamila Shamsie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith.

Canadians who have won the award include Toronto's Anne Michaels (for her 1996 novel Fugitive Piecesand Winnipeg's Carol Shields (for her 1997 novel Larry's Party).

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