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2020 Book Concierge: Mary Louise Kelly Picks 'Hamnet' By Maggie O'Farrell


'Tis the season at NPR where we shine a spotlight on the year's best books with NPR's Book Concierge - all kinds of books. And you can sort them with all kinds of categories, including book club ideas. In fact, my pick is based in part on a recent meeting of my book club here in D.C., which if you'd listened in, you would have heard me asking, so what should we read for our next book? And you would have heard a chorus of responses - can't we just read "Hamnet" again and again and again, like, just keep reading it? It was so good. This is a group, by the way, of a dozen women, all ages. We never unanimously love anything. "Hamnet" by Maggie O'Farrell was the exception.

Here she is reading an excerpt.


MAGGIE O'FARRELL: (Reading) He is dead. He is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again - at school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? Where is he? Here, she tries to tell herself, cold and lifeless on this board right in front of you. Look. Here. See. And Hamnet? Where is he?

KELLY: The novel explores the connection between what was arguably William Shakespeare's greatest play, "Hamlet," and the death of his only son four years before. I got to interview O'Farrell about the book, and she told me...


O'FARRELL: It seems so obvious, in a sense, that this is a play about fathers and sons and absence and loss and grief and the inability to deal with grief. You know, it causes this enormous chasm within you. And, of course, you know, there is - I mean, there is a story which I read. I mean, it's possibly apocryphal that Shakespeare himself played the ghost in the first productions of "Hamlet." And, of course, I slightly forgot. And then I read the play again, and I realized the ghost is also called Hamlet.

KELLY: It is a beautiful love story. And the writing - it's so beautiful I was often reading through tears.


O'FARRELL: I was looking back in a diary I wrote a couple of years ago. It covered the time in which I was writing the novel. And I just came across this completely blank double page, and on it was written one line. And it said, I killed Hamnet today. I remember dreading it as I was coming up to that point in the book, and I found that I couldn't write those scenes in the house where my children live; I had to write them in the garden.

KELLY: Wow. And never fear - if your book club has already read "Hamnet," you can go find more 2020 Book Concierge picks at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.