by Maggie O'Farrell

Hardcover, 2020




Knopf (2020), 320 pages


"A thrilling departure: a short, piercing, deeply moving novel about the death of Shakespeare's 11 year old son Hamnet--a name interchangeable with Hamlet in 15th century Britain--and the years leading up to the production of his great play. England, 1580. A young Latin tutor--penniless, bullied by a violent father--falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman--a wild creature who walks her family's estate with a falcon on her shoulder and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer. Agnes understands plants and potions better than she does people, but once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose gifts as a writer are just beginning to awaken when his beloved young son succumbs to bubonic plague. A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a hypnotic recreation of the story that inspired one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down--a magnificent departure from one of our most gifted novelists"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
I enjoyed earlier books by this author ([The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox], [After You'd Gone], [Instructions for a Heatwave]), but it has been a while since I picked up one of her novels. I definitely need to go back and catch up on what I've missed. [Hamnet] jumped to the top of my 2020 Best
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Reads list. Nothing else I've read this year comes even close and it will be very, very hard to beat.

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's sketchy biography probably knows that he had a son, Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of 11. And anyone who knows Shakespeare's works probably wondered about the similarity between his son's name and that of his best known tragic hero, Hamlet. O'Farrell attempts to connect the two.

The cause of Hamnet's death is unknown, but O'Farrell speculates that he may have caught the plague, which was rampant in London at the time and starting to reach rural areas. She begins her novel with the feverish boy frantically looking for his mother, grandmother, or any other adult who might come home and help his twin, Judith, who has suddenly fallen seriously ill. The story back tracks to the meeting and early life of Agnes (the novel's focal character) and her brother's much younger Latin tutor. (In case you wonder, Anne Hathaway has been referred to as Agnes in some early documents. It's possible that her name was pronounced in the French way, AHN-ye, which was transcribed as Anne.) Agnes's mother, a natural healer, died when she was young, but not without bestowing a good deal of her folk wisdom on her daughter, and Agnes, unhappily under the thumb of her stepmother Joan, believes that she receives messages from her. She has a reputation for being an odd woman: she spends her time in the woods, owns a trained falcon, is outspoken, and apparently has no interest in marriage. At 26, she falls in love with the tutor (whose name is never given; he is variously referred to as the tutor, the father, the playwright, etc.), who is only 18. When she becomes pregnant, their families and the neighbors speculate much as Shakespeare scholars and biographers have: Did he deliberately impregnate a woman of higher status, or did she deliberately since a younger man, perhaps because she was approaching spinsterhood? O'Farrell takes a third theory, that theirs was truly a love match, a "marriage of true minds." She follows their struggles to gain their families' approval and on through the early years of their marriage living under Mary and John Shakespeare's roof with their three young children. While their marriage strengthens and their understanding of one another grows, Agnes's husband's discontent grows as well. It is her love for this man that prompts her to encourage him to seek a better fortune in London. And this is where he is when first Judith and then Hamnet fall dangerously ill.

O'Farrell gives us a wonderful character in Agnes, a woman who is strong, intelligent, passionate, loyal, and fierce. While [Hamnet] is more her story than the playwright's, it is equally the story of a family and a portrait of grief. Grief is a hard thing to write, hard to put into words without spelling it out or falling into maudlin platitudes, both of which diminish the experience. O'Farrell has mastered the old maxim for new writers: Show, don't tell. I can't recall ever reading anything that made me feel so exactly, so overwhelmingly, the the weight of grief and the way it affects an entire family, especially Agnes, Hamnet's twin Judith, and his father. It's exquisitely done here.

Does O'Farrell address the similarity of the name Hamnet to Hamlet. Indeed she does, in a very unique way. I hope that you will read this amazingly beautiful book to discover just how.
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LibraryThing member farrhon
A dead boy - lots of present tense - oh kinda Oprah-like
LibraryThing member albertgoldfain
Not really a "novel of the plague" and barely a novel of Hamnet. There are fantastic moments... my favorite being Agnes simultaneously realizing Hamnet is sick and Judith is healed...but the bait-and-switch of relegating William Shakespeare to a simple absent father is an annoying gimmick.
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Hamnet is a historical fiction novel about the life of William Shakespeare’s family at the time of his son Hamnet’s death in 1596 and the writing of the play Hamlet around 1600. I was disappointed with this award-winning novel. I found it boring, but even worse was the prose style of the author
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that succeeded in what I can only call piling on the adjectives and adjective phrases in describing in detail the mundane activities of the characters.

The description of William Shakespeare’s early life, his marriage to Anne Hathaway, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes, the death of his son Hamnet from the plague and the subsequent impact of this tragedy on their marriage and his work comprise the plot of the novel. Will is never named and is referred to as ‘her husband’, ’the father’ or ‘ the latin tutor’. He also has very little to say for himself. This deliberate omission is most likely made to free the narrative from the weight of association that his name carries, but I found it quite contrived considering how much detail we are given about the setting, including the house interiors and streets of Stratford.

The novel begins with Hamnet but the central character is his mother Agnes who is unconventional, free spirited, a gifted herbalist and clairvoyant. It is the events between Hamnet’s parents’ meeting and his birth that provide a major part of the story. At her first meeting with Will she presses the flesh between his thumb and forefinger which reveals his incredible future to her but disappointingly very little subsequently emerges from this insight. There are some interesting descriptions of his former home and the life of the household. The story is narrated in a non-linear fashion with each chapter relating to a different time period. However I found the frequent back and forth an unnecessary stylistic approach that added to my overall disappointment.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
This is an interesting book. A fictionalised telling of the life of Shakespeare, concentrating on the short life of his only son.
I liked the plot - it is clearly fiction, and quite different from what I imagine might have been the case in real life, but it is plausible, consistent with the few
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facts known about Shakespeare's family life, and entertaining to boot.
I was less thrilled with the writing style. The non-linear style of telling made the story disjointed for me. I also was a little irritated by the use of first names only, soon after characters have been introduced - the reader sometimes needs descriptors for the first few times - 'his father' rather than just 'John'. This can be done subtly, and the reader gets into the groove. This author had me flailing.
But a good read for anyone with even the most fleeting interest in Shakespeare.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
I loved this book! It is a brilliant imagining of Hamnet Shakespeare, son of William and Agnes, mostly focused on Agnes’s love for her family. The author takes a different angle on the person we know from history as Anne Hathaway. Shakespeare is not the focus of this book, though he plays a
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crucial role (so to speak). In fact, he is never mentioned by name, and only referred to as “the tutor” or by Agnes as “my husband.” It is set in the 1580s to 1600, and covers the courtship, marriage, birth of children, home life, and the tragedy that befalls them.

The book It is beautifully written. O’Farrell has a knack for establishing the ambiance of the era, and I felt transported back in time. I could almost feel the atmosphere of England in the late 16th century – the sights, smells, and sounds. The details are superb, particularly the intimate details of family life. It is a beautiful contemplation on motherhood, portraying deep love, small pleasures, joy, guilt, and grief. It suggests the role of art in healing emotional wounds.

The author explains her research, identifying fact from fiction, and most of it is fiction since little source material exists on the life of Hamnet. This is historical fiction “done right,” at least it is for me. It will make my list of favorites for the year.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
Just to clear up a source of confusion for me that probably has happened to others, this book is only titled Hamnet and Judith in Canada; in England and maybe the rest of the English speaking world for all I know the title is simply Hamnet.

I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Daisy
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Donovan who did a great job. Some books work well as audiobooks and some don't but this was one that did.

Hamnet and Judith were twins born to William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway. Another potential source of confusion is that the wife's name is given as Agnes and Hathaway is never mentioned. Despite the title (whether the Canadian or British version) this book is really about Shakespeare's wife. In fact Shakespeare is never referred to by name.and he is rarely in the home in Stratford where the family lives Maggie O'Farrell has painted Agnes as a complex strong woman who manages her children and her business as a midwife and faith healer with little help from anyone else. Nevertheless when Judith and then Hamnet become ill with the Bubonic plague she is devastated. Shakespeare who is away from London with his troupe of actors doesn't get the message that Judith is ill for some time; by the time he arrives home in Stratford Judith has recovered but Hamnet is dead. Both parents are devastated by this loss but Shakespeare leaves Stratford and goes back to London where he writes Hamlet. This feels like a betrayal to Agnes but is it?

This book was awarded the Bailey Prize for Women's Literature for 2020 and I think it is a worthy recipient. It is not just a historical novel. It also explores the experience of grief showing how different people deal with grief and affirming that different ways work for different people. That's probably an important lesson during this time when so many are dying of COVID-19
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LibraryThing member starbox
Oh, this was a beautifully written work, conjuring up William Shakespeare's family....and the aftermath of the deatb of their 11 year old son, Hamnet. Little detail is known, so there's a lot of artistic licence...and maybe his wife was just a bit too touched-with-magic to be believed....but the
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quire heart rending evocation of the loss of a child, the way it impacts on the parents...and the portrayal of Tudor life..is quite superb.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a novel about William Shakespeare's family. He and his wife, Agnes, had three children. The younger children were twins, a boy and a girl. The boy, Hamnet, died at the age of 11. That is really all we know about Hamnet, but from those scant details O'Farrell has woven an incredibly vivid
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story of a family grieving for a son. The novel mostly focuses on Agnes. In the novel, she is a strange and perceptive woman, known for her love of nature and her knowledge of healing, and her uncanny ability to predict the future.

Mostly this is a story about grief - about how two parents grieve for their dead son in very different ways, and how that grief pulls them apart and brings them together.

The novel dances around Shakespeare. His name is never used - he is referred to as "the tutor" or "Agnes's husband" or "Hamnet's father." He both looms over the novel and is entirely incidental to it, as he spends most of the book in London putting on plays, away from his family in Stratford.

This is an excellent work of historical fiction. O'Farrell paints the time period very vividly, focusing on daily life and women's work in the household, and yet still makes the characters feel very familiar and relatable.

The storytelling is very compelling. Even though you know from the beginning that Hamnet is going to die and Shakespeare is going to write a play with his name, you really want to know what happens next and it's hard to put the book down.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
In the Wikipedia entry on William Shakespeare there is a single line about his twin son, Hamnet. "Hamnet died of unknown causes at the age of 11 and was buried 11 August 1596." But the impact of the death of an 11 year old child, who is also a son, a twin, and a brother can't be conveyed in that
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single line. But based on that single event, Maggie O'Farrell has woven a heart wrenching novel that tells the story from the courtship of William Shakespeare and his wife Agnes through the loss of their son. The prose is stunning -- descriptive, lyrical and totally enveloping. Shakespeare, surprisingly is not the lead character in this story. Instead the story revolves more about the life in Stratford-upon-Avon, with beautiful descriptions of daily tasks and the family of Hamnet Shakespeare. The story is quiet and gentle, but the emotions that it conveys when it comes to loss and grief are powerful. Definitely one of the most poignant books I've read about the death of a child.

Remember Me .
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LibraryThing member PaulCranswick
One cannot commence a review of this fine novel without pondering the nature and expression of grief.

So many of us have had our troubles and our losses over the past year or two that we would have to be turned into stone not to be moved by or identify with the protagonists of this book.

How do we
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treat with grief? For some of us it stultifies; we feel as if the world has or should stop turning so that we can stay as we were in that exact moment before we were bereft. It is said that grief can be all-consuming and for some it does consume - in pain, in loss, in fear and anguish and anger. For some it inspires us to memorialise and remember to create and to dedicate so that the loved one is never forgotten.

This is at heart what Hamnet spoke to me. The shades of grief between mother and father, twin and husband and wife is brilliantly explored and dissected and it leads us to the understanding that we all find our own way to get through. I thought the scenes where young Hamnet is prepared for his funeral and the funeral itself are some that will long stay with me and deserving alone of the plaudits O'Farrell received for the whole thing.

Possibly the world's finest play came from the premature end of a little boy, but the mother remembers the boy not the play.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
I decided to read this book because of the positive reviews as well as seeing how the author wove history and her own fiction. The story takes the basic historical facts surrounding Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway and creates a fictional account of their relationship. Unlike many books there
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is no great mystery as to what occurs. The center piece of the book is the death in 1596 of their son Hamnet. From historical records we learn that Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable names so we can speculate about the connection between the death of their son and the play Hamlet. O'Farrell's book deals mainly with Agnes(probably Anne's real name) who is portrayed as a free spirited woman with strong ties to nature. She is a creator of herbal cures and medicines. We see life during this time portrayed in detail and with her beautiful prose we can appreciate the time. The book is told through the eyes of the different characters and Shakespeare is always referred to as a son or husband but never by name. She uses the facts that Shakespeare spent time between London and Stratford and builds her story around the known set of facts. I truly enjoyed the book and my only complaint was the way it alternated between the beginning of the relationship between Anne and William and the time surrounding the death of Hamnet. The last 3rd of the book stays on the latter narrative and it is the best part of the book. If you love Shakespeare then you should consider this book. It is a worthwhile read.
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LibraryThing member bookfest
Of course, I love anything having to do with Shakespeare, but this isn't really about him. Like Ahab's Wife, it is a highly fictionalized account of a famous man's unknown wife. While many of us had learned that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, the author informs us in the endnote that historical
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records suggest her name was actually Agnes. This is her story. She is portrayed as a woman of the forest, deeply connected to the natural world, talented at healing, capable of reading people's illnesses and future. She is an uncomfortable fit in the home of Shakespeare's parents in the village of Stratford, always considered odd by her father-in-law and difficult by her mother-in-law, Mary. Ultimately, the story is about the death of their son, Hamnet, who, theoretically, inspired the play Hamlet.
O'Farrell's writing is remarkable. Her rich imagery immerses you in Agnes' world. You feel her. Feel her experiences. The reader knows from the outset that Hamnet dies, but the story is more about how he comes to be and, in the end, how his death fractures the lives of those closest to him.
Don't miss this one!
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
The writing here is beautiful, and there are stretches of this story that make for engrossing historical fiction, but there were for me much longer stretches where this was not engrossing in the least, where it felt like 100 other books of the plague years. Shakespeare was not in any way a
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meaningful character through most of the story. While I am sure he was saddened by the death of his only son, he barely knew the child and seemed pretty uninterested in him in life. And Agnes....sigh... is there some covenant among historical writers that the only way in which a female character is allowed to be interesting is if she is a witchy herbalist? Because other than her gift for clabbering together a good poultice and her availability for a little slap and tickle with the Bard during his week or two per year in Stratford Agnes mostly seems trapped and weak and sad, which I imagine describes many of the women of that time.

In the end it felt like O'Farrell was attempting an examination of grief, but it did not feel like a terribly authentic or moving one. Might Shakespeare have used the name of the dead son he met a couple of times as an homage? Sure. That sounds reasonable. But there is nothing else in Hamlet that ties to anything in this story of Hamnet. Sure the play is a little about grief, but it is more about melancholy, uncertainty, the equal rightness and wrongness of action and inaction, and the physical and moral corruption of leaders and of the state. This book seemed to minimize that work, and that is a damn shame.

I know everyone loved this, and it certainly was a pretty read. I enjoyed it well enough while I was reading for the most part though it dragged, especially the first third. For me it was a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. If people are interested in looking at the grief of great men, go grab Lincoln in the Bardo. That told me something about grief and about the mantle of accomplishment, of being a great man and also just a man. I feel like O'Farrell was sort of trying for that here, and she whiffed.
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LibraryThing member Bananaman
I'm not normally a great fan of historical fiction but this book changed my opinion.
She really captures the environment, atmosphere, people and their emotions superbly.
Can't recommend the book highly enough.
LibraryThing member nancyadair
The story of William Shakespeare's wife and family makes for the best kind of historical fiction, a literary gem that transports readers into another world that is alien and yet very familiar, thanks to the depth of the characters.

O'Farrell imagines William meeting and falling in love with Agnes, a
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strange woman who practices herbal remedies and wanders alone through the fields and woods with her pet falcon.

William's unhappiness with rural life inspires Agnes to suggest he expand his father's business in London, where he becomes involved with he theater. He supports his family and visits several times a year while Agnes raises their children.

O'Farrell follows the path of the plague across the world until it reaches Agnes's twin children. Hamnet's protectiveness of his twin leads to dire consequences.

This story of grief is one more 2020 book whose timing was serendipitous. At a time when millions mourn, O'Farrell has given us a luminous story of grief.

I purchased a copy of the book.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
William Shakespeare had a son. A son who died as a youth. This is the imagined circumstance of that life and death, its coming and its consequence, its possible reverberation across the centuries. But mostly it is the story of Agnes, sometimes known and ‘Anne’, who was William’s wife, the
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mother of Hamnet (which is an alternate spelling of ‘Hamlet’), he who was twinned with Judith and died, in this account, in her place, the collateral damage of pestilence.

This is a lyrical tale primarily told from Agnes’ perspective. She is unusual for her time, a creature as much of the forest as of the town. She communes with bees, hunts with a kestrel, gathers herbs and medicinal flowers. She knows her own mind and, more significantly, the minds of others through a glance or a touch. From her first encounter with the young Latin tutor, she perceives worlds upon worlds within him, more than he himself yet dreams of. And so against the advice of others she will have him for her own. And life, as they say, develops.

O’Farrell writes with great assurance, comfortable with her subject and at ease with the movement back and forth in time from the immediate hours preceding Hamnet’s death to the earlier wooing of Agnes and William. She writes propulsively — you will be thrust forward ceaselessly as though the continuance of this story and yourself depends upon it. It really is a remarkable feat. And virtually impossible not to fall in love with.

So easy to recommend.
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LibraryThing member ParadisePorch
Note: I read the Canadian edition "Hamnet and Judith"

This is a lovely book and has been thoroughly reviewed by many others. I'll add only two notes:

1. The chapter that describes (fictionally) how the plague reached Stratford in rags that packed Venetian beads which Judith helped unpack is detailed
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and fascinating.

2. Shakespeare and Agnes married in Temple Grafton – not their usual church in Stratford, because she was pregnant. My grandmother, Ethel O'Dell was born in Temple Grafton and lived there until 1919 when she, her two brothers, and her mother emigrated to Canada. I was raised on the legend that Shakespeare had been married in that parish 300 years before Gram was born.
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LibraryThing member clamairy
Another amazing read for me. This book is fiction about William Shakespeare's and the death of his son Hamnet at age 11. The writing is so intense that it's almost surreal. I couldn't pick up another book right away, because there is so much to unpack here.
LibraryThing member overthemoon
Very sensitive descriptions meant that this took me quite a while to read, as I wanted to absorb evey word down to the scattering of pollen on the table. The chapter telling how the "pestilence" spread from a monkey's flea in Alexandria to England is fascinating. And I came to understand why
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William Shakespeare willed to his wife the "second-best bed"; it's what she would have wanted.
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LibraryThing member kimkimkim
A masterpiece no matter the liberties taken.
LibraryThing member Rosareads
An exceptionally creative and beautifully written book. A joy to read.
LibraryThing member auntmarge64
A masterpiece, perfect in every way.

O`Farrell takes the few facts known about Shakespeare and his family and weaves a magical, engrossing tale that begins with early events in the lives of Shakespeare and his wife, here called Agnes, continuing with their courtship and their married life up to the
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fallout from the death of their only son, Hamnet. Agnes is a wonderfully- Imagined character and the center of the story. But the author adds immense depth with multiple points of view and vivid descriptions of life in Stratford, both with Shakespeare in residence and during his long absences in London.

And then there's the conclusion, which blew me away, as Agnes grieves Hamnet's death and looks for a way to connect with Shakespeare in their shared pain. Just mesmerizing.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“He can feel death in the room, hovering in the shadows, over there beside the door, head averted, but watching all the same, always watching. It is waiting, biding its time...They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of
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“How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor.”

England 1580. The Black Death haunts the land. We are introduced to a family, living in Stratford -upon-Avon. A struggling playwright, his wife and three children, including twins. A boy and girl. The boy is named Hamnet, who will be immortalized in a great play called Hamlet.
This dark, beautiful novel, looks at a marriage and a family ravaged by a sudden death, while reimagining a boy's life, which very little is known about. This book has received many accolades. It deserves every one.
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LibraryThing member Pat_D
Imagined influence for Shakespeare's famous play not revealed until the ending. Poignant, slow, well-written effects of loss, death and spiritual belief.


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