Rathbones Folio Prize 2021 Shortlist Reviews & Prediction

I’ve nearly managed to read the whole Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist before the prize is announced on the evening of Wednesday the 24th. (You can sign up to watch the online ceremony here.) I reviewed the Baume and Ní Ghríofa as part of a Reading Ireland Month post on Saturday, and I’d reviewed the Machado last year in a feature on out-of-the-ordinary memoirs. This left another five books. Because they were short, I’ve been able to read and/or review another four over the past couple of weeks. (The only one unread is As You Were by Elaine Feeney, which I made a false start on last year and didn’t get a chance to try again.)

Nominations come from the Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, so the shortlisted authors have been chosen by an audience of their peers. Indeed, I kept spotting judges’ or fellow nominees’ names in the books’ acknowledgements or blurbs. I tried to think about the eight as a whole and generalize about what the judges were impressed by. This was difficult for such a varied set of books, but I picked out two unifying factors: A distinctive voice, often with a musicality of language – even the books that don’t include poetry per se are attentive to word choice; and timeliness of theme yet timelessness of experience.

 

Poor by Caleb Femi

Femi brings his South London housing estate to life through poetry and photographs. This is a place where young Black men get stopped by the police for any reason or none, where new trainers are a status symbol, where boys’ arrogant or seductive posturing hides fear. Everyone has fallen comrades, and things like looting make sense when they’re the only way to protest (“nothing was said about the maddening of grief. Nothing was said about loss & how people take and take to fill the void of who’s no longer there”). The poems range from couplets to prose paragraphs and are full of slang, Caribbean patois, and biblical patterns. I particularly liked Part V, modelled on scripture with its genealogical “begats” and a handful of portraits:

The Story of Ruthless

Anyone smart enough

to study the food chain

of the estate knew exactly

who this warrior girl was;

once she lined eight boys

up against a wall,

emptied their pockets.

Nobody laughed at the boys.

Another that stood out for me was the two-part “A Designer Talks of Home / A Resident Talks of Home,” a found poem partially constructed from dialogue from a Netflix documentary on interior design. It ironically contrasts airy aesthetic notions with survival in a concrete wasteland. If you loved Surge by Jay Bernard, this should be next on your list.

 

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long 

I first read this when it was on the Costa Awards shortlist. As in Femi’s collection, race, sex, and religion come into play. The focus is on memories of coming of age, with the voice sometimes a girl’s and sometimes a grown woman’s. Her course veers between innocence and hazard. She must make her way beyond the world’s either/or distinctions and figure out how to be multiple people at once (biracial, bisexual). Her Black mother is a forceful presence; “Red Hoover” is a funny account of trying to date a Nigerian man to please her mother. Much of the rest of the book failed to click with me, but the experience of poetry is so subjective that I find it hard to give any specific reasons why that’s the case.

 

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

After the two poetry entries on the shortlist, it’s on to a book that, like A Ghost in the Throat, incorporates poetry in a playful but often dark narrative. In 1976, two competitive American fishermen, a father-and-son pair down from Florida, catch a mermaid off of the fictional Caribbean island of Black Conch. Like trophy hunters, the men take photos with her; they feel a mixture of repulsion and sexual attraction. Is she a fish, or an object of desire? In the recent past, David Baptiste recalls what happened next through his journal entries. He kept the mermaid, Aycayia, in his bathtub and she gradually shed her tail and turned back into a Taino indigenous woman covered in tattoos and fond of fruit. Her people were murdered and abused, and the curse that was placed on her runs deep, threatening to overtake her even as she falls in love with David. This reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise. I loved that Aycayia’s testimony was delivered in poetry, but this short, magical story came and went without leaving any impression on me.

 

Indelicacy by Amina Cain 

Having heard that this was about a cleaner at an art museum, I expected it to be a readalike of Asunder by Chloe Aridjis, a beautifully understated tale of ghostly perils faced by a guard at London’s National Gallery. Indelicacy is more fable-like. Vitória’s life is in two halves: when she worked at the museum and had to forego meals to buy new things, versus after she met her rich husband and became a writer. Increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage, she then comes up with an escape plot involving her hostile maid. Meanwhile, she makes friends with a younger ballet student and keeps in touch with her fellow cleaner, Antoinette, a pregnant newlywed. Vitória tries sex and drugs to make her feel something. Refusing to eat meat and trying to persuade Antoinette not to baptize her baby become her peculiar twin campaigns.

The novella belongs to no specific time or place; while Cain lives in Los Angeles, this most closely resembles ‘wan husks’ of European autofiction in translation. Vitória issues pretentious statements as flat as the painting style she claims to love. Some are so ridiculous they end up being (perhaps unintentionally) funny: “We weren’t different from the cucumber, the melon, the lettuce, the apple. Not really.” The book’s most extraordinary passage is her husband’s rambling, defensive monologue, which includes the lines “You’re like an old piece of pie I can’t throw away, a very good pie. But I rescued you.”

It seems this has been received as a feminist story, a cheeky parable of what happens when a woman needs a room of her own but is trapped by her social class. When I read in the Acknowledgements that Cain took lines and character names from Octavia E. Butler, Jean Genet, Clarice Lispector, and Jean Rhys, I felt cheated, as if the author had been engaged in a self-indulgent writing exercise. This was the shortlisted book I was most excited to read, yet ended up being the biggest disappointment.

 

On the whole, the Folio shortlist ended up not being particularly to my taste this year, but I can, at least to an extent, appreciate why these eight books were considered worthy of celebration. The authors are “writers’ writers” for sure, though in some cases that means they may fail to connect with readers. There was, however, some crossover this year with some more populist prizes like the Costa Awards (Roffey won the overall Costa Book of the Year).

The crystal-clear winner for me is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, her memoir of an abusive same-sex relationship. Written in the second person and in short sections that examine her memories from different angles, it’s a masterpiece and a real game changer for the genre – which I’m sure is just what the judges are looking for.

The only book on the shortlist that came anywhere close to this one, for me, was A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, an elegant piece of feminist autofiction that weaves in biography, imagination, and poetry. It would be a fine runner-up choice.

(On the Rathbones Folio Prize Twitter account, you will find lots of additional goodies like links to related articles and interviews, and videos with short readings from each author.)

My thanks to the publishers and FMcM Associates for the free copies for review.

25 responses

  1. I’ve not managed to make time to read any of this year’s shortlist. I’ll be watching the ceremony though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Were you sent the shortlist again this year? I was delighted to receive the set, but wish I’d gotten on better with more of the books. The Ní Ghríofa was the one new revelation for me, and I am pleased to now own a copy of the Machado, one of my favourite books of the past few years.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No I didn’t get them 😦 (which is why I haven’t read any)

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    2. Too bad. I think only a handful of bloggers/vloggers got a set this year. Mostly higher-profile folks than me, so I’m very lucky to have been included!

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  2. I’m reading The Mermaid of Black Conch at the moment, I’m only about 20% through and I just can’t click with it. I love this kind of folktale and I agree, Aycayia’s poetry is very effective, so I’m not sure what isn’t working for me. I wonder if the jumping between narrative perspectives and styles stops it being as immersive as I wanted it to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really wanted to like it more. Have you read anything else by Roffey?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I started The White Woman on the Green Bicycle but got stuck with that as well!

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      2. D’oh! Well, I can highly recommend her essay from the recent Trauma anthology. Maybe that means I’d get on better with her nonfiction.

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  3. A very useful review. I was toying with the idea of the Caribbean Mermaid book, but have now abandoned the idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m puzzled as to why it’s had so much prize attention. Others have loved it more than I did!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As we all know, tastes differ. What can I say?

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  4. I enjoyed a previous book by Monique Roffey but the Mermaid one holds no interest for me despite the love being expressed by many members of our book club. Fortunately it wasn’t chosen for us to read because I would definitely have skipped it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting to hear, Karen. Which Roffey book did you like?

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      1. It was called Archipelego – a father and daughter get on a boat to escape from floods which have devastated their island home. They head to the Galapagos islands. The portrayal of the setting was wonderful

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      2. That sounds rather appealing.

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  5. I’d love to see A Ghost in the Throat win as I loved it, but have yet to read Dream House.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think A Ghost in the Throat is a very strong contender, but my heart is with In the Dream House. It must be so difficult for the judges to choose between books from such different genres. We will find out in a few short hours!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. None of these appeal to me apart from Poor!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, this was not a strong set for me. I have my copy of Poor saved for you (it happens to be signed!).

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      1. Oh wonderful, thank you so much! Do say if there’s anything recent of mine you might like!

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  7. I really loved Roffey’s earlier novel (Green Bicycle) but haven’t read this one yet. I did unfreeze my hold on Indelicacy after I saw it in your previous post, but it sounds like you didn’t care for it at all (I half-read those paragraphs in case there were spoilers)? Well done, though, on reading the whole shortlist. That’s always a nice feeling–like you’re in the know (although, of course, unless one is on the jury, that’s an illusion)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s possible you’d enjoy Indelicacy. It was much admired by an audience of her peers, after all! The approach is similar to, e.g. Nunez, but the actual writing and incidents I did not enjoy at all. At least they chose the right winner in the end 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I dunno…but my hold is there for pick-up this week (already!), so I will check it out soon. Either way, I think it’s a skinny one?

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      2. True, about 160 pages with not many words on a page.

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