When the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 shortlist was first announced, it was evident the judges had a difficult job on their hands, under pressure to pick a winner from some of the most talented writers we have all loved during lockdown. On Wednesday, it was officially announced, via a digital awards ceremony in London, that Maggie O’Farrell had won the prize with her exceptional novel Hamnet, inspired by the life and death of Shakespeare’s son.
Judge Paula Hawkins presented O’Farrell with the £30,000 prize and the ‘Bessie’, a limited-edition bronze figurine, in the author’s home town of Edinburgh. After the shock on social media at Hamnet not being on the Booker Prize shortlist, winning The Women’s Prize seems only fit to celebrate the unique nature of the novel. The Women’s Prize was introduced after the Booker was criticised for its lack of inclusion of female writers in 1991. Now, on its 25th year, it rewards “excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from across the world”. It has been won by novelists such as Andrea Levy for her novel Small Island and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.
The novel, O’Farrell’s eighth, is set in 1596 and tells the beautiful and emotional story of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s 11 year-old son who dies at the opening of the story. Delving into the relationship between Hamnet’s mother, Agnes Hathaway, and her famous playwright husband, it’s an unforgettable tale of a boy who has been all but forgotten, a marriage that is pushed to the brink by grief and the power of creativity in such hard times. Published on the 31st March, at the start of lockdown, the novel is pertinent to our times, as it explores characters who were constantly in fear of the bubonic plague, that which kills Hamnet. O’Farrell stated her characters and the Elizabethans “would have constantly been in lockdown throughout their lives”, much like we were in March. O’Farrell is also the author of the Sunday Times number one bestselling memoir I am, I am, alongside the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award-winner The Distance Between Us.
Hamnet has found itself on many reader’s bookshelves these last few months, including Lane Fox’s who called the novel an “exceptional” winner. She stated: “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”.
Upon accepting the prize, O’Farrell said it was “just amazing”, explaining: “The shortlist was so extraordinary it never occurred to me. I feel like I want to run out into the garden and howl at the moon – I apologise to all the women of Edinburgh, there are no wolves, it is just me.” Hamnet won against the likes of 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 award-winning author went on to thank her editor Mary-Anne Harrington and agent Victoria Hobbs whose “encouragement and inspiration has meant so much to me”. Paying tribute to the Women’s Prize itself, she also stated that “looking at the roster of 25 winners, I see so many books that have sustained and inspired me throughout my whole career.” It thus seems only fitting that Hamnet, an incredibly inspiring read itself has won the prize this year. Despite thinking being shortlist was “some kind of elaborate prank”, O’Farrell has proven once more that female writers are inspiring and incredibly powerful.
To celebrate O’Farrell’s success, get yourself to a bookshop and purchase a copy of Hamnet. Trust me, you will not regret it. And keep your eyes peeled, as to celebrate the prize’s 25th anniversary, readers will get the opportunity to crown the “Winner of Winners” in a public vote, chosen from the 25 winning novels since the prize’s creation.
Words by Lucy Lillystone
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