Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
I’ve had mixed feelings about the online nature of life recently. On Sunday I avoided the Internet altogether so as not to be bombarded with (UK) Mother’s Day memes and notifications. Yesterday our home broadband dropped out completely, such that I couldn’t do any freelance work or post about the Folio Prize poetry shortlist as I’d meant to do on World Poetry Day. Too much connectivity or not enough. Today – just as a line engineer is due to arrive; that usual irony – all is normal and I’m back in the swing of working and blogging.
Using my husband’s phone as a hotspot, I was at least still able to watch yesterday evening’s free 5×15 event with the Rathbones Folio Prize, featuring Amy Bloom, NoViolet Bulawayo, Sheila Heti, Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Strout and hosted by interviewer Alex Clark. Over the next couple of days I’ll review Heti and Strout’s novels and the entire poetry shortlist, but for now I’ll weave some of the insight I gained last night into a review of Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson (2022), the new-to-me book from the nonfiction shortlist that I was most interested in reading.
Although the subtitle is “A Memoir,” this experimental text does such novel things with the genre that it bears little resemblance to most memoirs I’ve read. For that reason alone, I can see why the judges shortlisted it. During the 5×15 event, Jefferson described her book as “an assemblage of ideas, memories, sensations, feelings, and other people’s words—not just my own.” It’s also a reckoning with culture – particularly jazz music and dance by African Americans, but also particular examples from the white literary canon.
Jefferson was a long-time theatre and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for her criticism in 1995; she now teaches writing at Columbia University. She has previously published another memoir, Negroland, and a biography of Michael Jackson. Here she blends her chosen genres of life writing and cultural criticism. Her aim, she said, was to craft “criticism with the intensities and intimacies of memoir” and “memoir with the range of criticism.”
Jefferson mentioned that the deaths of her mother and older sister (who was like her muse) left her an orphan and, strangely, “cleared the stage for me to step out and speak my lines.” Indeed, the book is loosely structured as a play, opening with the metaphor of an empty stage and ending with the direction “BLACKOUT.” In between there are many imagined dialogues with herself or between historical figures, such as the bizarre pairing of George Eliot and W.E.B. Du Bois. Some quotations and definitions appear in italics or bold face. Ella Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker play major roles, but there’s also a surprisingly long section devoted to Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, which Jefferson loves and has often taught, yet finds problematic for how it enshrines whiteness (“Confederate Southern mythmaking”).
I don’t feel that I got much of a sense of the sweep of Jefferson’s life from the book, just a vague impression of an upper-middle-class Black upbringing. (Perhaps Negroland is a more straightforward memoir?) To be sure, she was keen to avoid “slogging through chronology,” as she explained, instead welcoming onto the page “a repertory company of myself as I encounter all the materials of my life—the factual and historical as well as the creative.” And so I do feel I have met her as an industrious mind, drawing connections between disparate aspects of experience and cultural consumption. This is a model of how a critic (like myself) might incorporate a body of work into a record of life. Yet when so many of her touchstones do not overlap with mine, I could only observe and admire from afar, not be truly drawn in.
Some lines I loved:
“Remember: Memoir is your present negotiating with versions of your past for a future you’re willing to show up in.”
“Older women’s tales— ‘Une femme d’un certain âge’ tales—are hard to pull off. They risk being arch.”
(of Ella Fitzgerald) “You turned the maw of black female labor into the wonderland of black female art.”
“Women’s anger needs to be honored—celebrated and protected—the way virginity used to be! … I’ve spent my adult years working on an assemblage of black feminist anger modes.”
With thanks to FMcM Associates and Granta Books for the free copy for review.
I was very impressed with both Amy Bloom and Margo Jefferson ‘in person’ (on Zoom): elegant, intellectual, well-spoken; authors at the top of their game. I reviewed Amy Bloom’s affecting memoir In Love, about her husband Brian’s early-onset Alzheimer’s and the decision to end his life at Dignitas in Zurich, last year. She told Alex Clark that the book started as a caregiver’s notes, but Brian made it clear that he wanted her to write about the experience, to inform people about end-of-life options. She believes that ultimately the memoir is about what it means to be a person and the decisions that make up a life. Her children joke that her only four subjects – in fiction or otherwise – are love, sex, family and death. Well, what else is there, really?
I know only the barest facts about the other three books on the Folio nonfiction shortlist but none of them screams ‘must read’ to me:
- The Passengers by Will Ashon – oral narratives from contemporary Britain
- The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland – biography of an Auschwitz whistle-blower
- The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey – a rapper’s book about inequality and antisocial behaviour
Have you read, or would you read, anything from the Folio nonfiction shortlist?
Tomorrow: Five poetry shortlist reviews
Friday: Two fiction shortlist reviews; my predictions for the category winners and overall prize winner
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
I read this after its shortlisting for the Charlotte Aitken Trust/Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, as well as its longlisting for the Dylan Thomas Prize. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any novel by a young Irish woman will only and ever be compared to Sally Rooney … but that works in Nolan’s favour. I would certainly call this a readalike to Rooney’s first two books, but there’s an added psychological intensity here.
A young woman reflects on an obsessive affair that she began in Dublin in April 2012. Was it love at first sight for her with Ciaran? No, actually, it was more like pity: “The first time I saw him, I pitied him terribly,” the novel opens. “I stood in that gallery and felt not only sexual attraction (which I was aware of, dimly, as background noise) but what I can only describe as grave and troubling pity.” That doesn’t bode well now, does it?
Ciaran is an insecure, hot-tempered magazine writer. He’s also still half in love with his ex-girlfriend, Freja, whom he left behind in Copenhagen, and our narrator (an underemployed would-be writer) feels she has to fight for his attention and affections. She has body issues and drinks too much, but she’s addicted to love, and sex specifically, as much as to alcohol.
A central on-again, off-again relationship is hardly a new subject for fiction, but I admired Nolan’s work for its sharp insights into the psyche of an emotionally fragile young woman whose frantic search for someone to value her leads her into masochistic behaviours. Brief looks back at the events of 2012–14 from a present storyline set in Athens in 2019 create helpful hindsight yet reveal how much she still struggles to affirm her self-worth.
The short chapters are like freeze-frames, concentrated bursts of passion that will resonate even if the characters’ specific situations do not. And it’s not all despair and damage; there are beautiful moments here, too, like the sweet habit they had of buying an apple each and then just walking around town for a cheap outing – the source of the cover image. I marked passage after passage, but will share just a couple:
How impoverished my internal life had become, the scrabbling for a token of love from somebody who didn’t want to offer it.
I was taking away his ability to live without me easily. I subbed his rent, I cooked his food, I cleaned his clothes, so that one day soon there would come a time when he could no longer remember how he had ever done without me, and could not imagine doing so ever again.
Even if you’re burnt out on what pace amore libri blogger Rachel dubs “disaster woman” books, make an exception for this potent story of self-sabotage and -recovery. Especially if you’re a fan of Emma Jane Unsworth, The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts, and, yes, Sally Rooney. (Also reviewed by Annabel.)
With thanks to FMcM Associates and Jonathan Cape for the free copy for review.
The rest of the shortlist:
After about 50 pages I DNFed Here Comes the Miracle by Anna Beecher, which had MA-course writing-by-numbers and seemed to be building towards When God Was a Rabbit mawkishness (how on earth did it get shortlisted?!).
See my mini reviews of the other three nominees here.
I am still rooting for Cal Flyn to win for her excellent and perennially relevant travel book, Islands of Abandonment.
Tonight there’s a shortlist readings event taking place in London. If anyone goes, do share photos! The award will be given tomorrow, the 24th. I’ll look out for the announcement.
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.
Reading Ireland Month: Baume, Kennefick, Ní Ghríofa, O’Farrell
Reading Ireland Month is hosted each March by Cathy of 746 Books. This year I read works by four Irish women: a meditation on birds and craft, hard-hitting poems about body issues, autofiction that incorporates biography and translation to consider the shape of women’s lives across the centuries, and a novel that jets between Hong Kong and Scotland. Two of these were sent to me as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist. I have some Irish music lined up to listen to (Hallow by Duke Special, At Swim by Lisa Hannigan, Chop Chop by Bell X1, Magnetic North by Iain Archer) and I’m ready to tell you all about these four books.
handiwork by Sara Baume (2020)
Back in February 2016, I reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, for Third Way magazine. A dark story of a middle-aged loner and his adopted dog setting off on a peculiar road trip, it was full of careful nature imagery. “I’ve always noticed the smallest, quietest things,” the narrator, Ray, states. The same might be said of Baume, who is a visual artist as well as an author and put together this gently illuminating book over the course of 2018, at the same time as she was working on several sculptural installations. In short sections of a paragraph or two, or sometimes no more than a line, she describes her daily routines in her home workspaces: in the morning she listens to barely audible talk radio as she writes, while the afternoons are for carving and painting.
Working with her hands is a family tradition passed down from her grandfather and father, who died in the recent past – of lung cancer from particles he was exposed to at the sandstone quarry where he worked. Baume has a sense of responsibility for how she spends her time and materials. Concern about waste is at odds with a drive for perfection: she discarded her first 100 plaster birds before she was happy with the series used to illustrate this volume. Snippets of craft theory, family memories, and trivia about bird migration and behaviour are interspersed with musings on what she makes. The joy of holding a physical object in the hand somehow outweighs that of having committed virtual words to a hard drive.
Despite the occasional lovely line, this scattered set of reflections doesn’t hang together. The bird facts, in particular, feel shoehorned in for symbolism, as in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. It’s a shame, as from the blurb I thought this book couldn’t be better suited to my tastes. Ultimately, as with Spill, Baume’s prose doesn’t spark much for me.
“Most of the time spent making is spent, in fact, in the approach.”
“I must stop once the boredom becomes intolerable, knowing that if I plunge on past this point I will risk arriving at resentment”
“What we all shared – me, my dad, his dad – was a suspicion of modern life, a loathing of fashion, a disappointment with the new technologies and a preference for the ad hoc contraptions of the past”
“The glorious, crushing, ridiculous repetition of life.”
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. handiwork is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (2021)
This audacious debut collection of fleshly poems is the best I’ve come across so far this year. The body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines.
Where did I start?
Yes, with the heart, enlarged,
its chambers stretched through caring.
Oh is it in defiance or defeat, I don’t know,
I eat it anyway, raw, still warm.
The size of my fist, I love it.
(from the opening poem, “Learning to Eat My Mother, where My Mother Is the Teacher”)
Meat avoidance goes beyond principled vegetarianism to become a phobia. Like the female saints, the speaker will deny herself until she achieves spiritual enlightenment.
The therapist taps my shoulders, my head, my knees,
tells me I was a nun once, very strict.
This makes sense; I know how cleanly I like
to punish myself.
(from “Alternative Medicine”)
The title phrase comes from “Open Your Mouth,” in which the god Krishna, as a toddler, nourishes his mother with clay. A child feeding its mother reverses the expected situation, which is described in one of the book’s most striking poems, “Researching the Irish Famine.” The site of an old workhouse divulges buried horrors: “Mothers exhausted their own bodies / to produce milk. […] The starving / human / literally / consumes / itself.”
Corpses and meals; body odour and graves. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to this collection, but it also has its lighter moments: the sexy “Paris Syndrome,” the low-stakes anxiety over pleasing one’s mother in “Guest Room,” and the playful closer, “Prayer to Audrey Hepburn” (“O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting / bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing”). Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry. Verse readalikes would include The Air Year by Caroline Bird, Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, and Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt, while in prose I was also reminded of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (review coming soon) and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. This comes out on the 25th.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2020)
“This is a female text.” In an elegant loop, Ní Ghríofa begins and ends with this line, and uses it as a refrain throughout. What is the text? It is this book, yes, as well as the 18th-century Irish-language poem that becomes an obsession for the author/narrator, “The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire” by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill; however, it is also the female body, its milk and blood just as significant for storytelling as any ink.
Because the protagonist’s name is the same as the author’s, I took her experiences at face value. As the narrative opens in 2012, Ní Ghríofa and her husband have three young sons and life for her is a list of repetitive household tasks that must be completed each day. She donates pumped breast milk for premature babies as a karmic contribution to the universe: something she can control when so much around her she feels she can’t, like frequent evictions and another pregnancy. Reading Eibhlín Dubh’s lament for her murdered husband, contemplating a new translation of it, and recreating her life from paltry archival fragments: these tasks broaden her life and give an intellectual component to complement the bodily one.
My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink. […] I skitter through chaotic mornings of laundry and lunchboxes and immunisations, always anticipating my next session at the breast-pump, because this is as close as I get to a rest. To sit and read while bound to my insatiable machine is to leave my lists behind and stroll instead through doors opened by Eibhlín Dubh.
Ní Ghríofa remembers other times in her life in an impressionistic stream: starting a premed course at university, bad behaviour that culminated in suicidal ideation, a near-collision on a highway, her daughter’s birth by emergency C-section, finally buying a house and making it a home by adopting a stray kitten and planting a bee-friendly garden. You can tell from the precision of her words that Ní Ghríofa started off as a poet, and I loved how she writes about her own life. I had little interest in Eibhlín Dubh’s story, but maybe it’s enough for her to be an example of women “cast once more in the periphery of men’s lives.” It’s a book about women’s labour – physical and emotional – and the traces of it that remain. I recommend it alongside I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and Mother Ship by Francesca Segal.
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. A Ghost in the Throat is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell (2004)
This is the earliest work of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read – it was her third novel, following After You’d Gone and My Lover’s Lover (I finally found those two at a charity shop last year and I’m saving them for a rainy day). It took me a long time to get into this one. It’s delivered in bitty sections that race between characters and situations, not generally in chronological order. It’s not until nearly the halfway point that you get a sense of how it all fits together.
Although there are many secondary characters, the two main strands belong to Jake, a young white filmmaker raised in Hong Kong by a bohemian mother, and Stella, a Scottish-Italian radio broadcaster. When a Chinese New Year celebration turns into a stampede, Jake and his girlfriend narrowly escape disaster and rush into a commitment he’s not ready for. In the meantime, Stella gets spooked by a traumatic flash from her childhood and flees London for a remote Scottish hotel. She’s very close to her older sister, Nina, who was deathly ill as a child (O’Farrell inserts a scene I was familiar with from I Am, I Am, I Am, when she heard a nurse outside her room chiding a noisy visitor, “There’s a little girl dying in there”), but now it’s Nina who will have to convince Stella to take the chance at happiness that life is offering.
In the end, this felt like a rehearsal for This Must Be the Place; it has the myriad settings (e.g., here, Italy, Wales and New Zealand are also mentioned) but not the emotional heft. With a setup like this, you sort of know where things are going, don’t you? Despite Stella’s awful secret, she is as flat a character as Jake. Simple boy-meets-girl story lines don’t hold a lot of appeal for me now, if they ever did. Still, the second half was a great ride.
Also, I’ve tried twice over the past year, but couldn’t get further than page 80 in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes (2020), a black comedy about two brothers whose farmer father goes bankrupt and gets a terminal diagnosis. It’s a strangely masculine book (though in some particulars very similar to Scenes of a Graphic Nature) and I found little to latch on to. This was a disappointment as I’d very much enjoyed Hughes’s debut, Orchid & the Wasp, and this second novel is now on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
The Rathbones Folio Prize 2021 Shortlist
The Rathbones Folio Prize is unique in that nominations come from the Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, and any book written in English is eligible, so nonfiction and poetry share space with fiction on the varied shortlist of eight titles:
- handiwork by Sara Baume (Tramp Press)
- Indelicacy by Amina Cain (Daunt Books)
- As You Were by Elaine Feeney (Harvill Secker)
- Poor by Caleb Femi (Penguin)
- My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long (Picador)
- In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail)
- A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)
- The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)
I was delighted to be sent the whole shortlist to feature. I’d already read Rachel Long’s poetry collection and Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir (reviewed here), but I’m keen to start on the rest and will read and review as many as possible before the online prize announcement on Wednesday the 24th. I’m starting with the Baume, Cain, Femi and Roffey.
For more information on the prize, these eight authors, and the longlist, see the website.
(The remainder of the text in this post comes from the official press release.)
The Rathbones Folio Prize — known as the “writers’ prize” — rewards the best work of literature of the year, regardless of form. It is the only award governed by an international academy of distinguished writers and critics, ensuring a unique quality and consistency in the nomination and judging process.
The judges (Roger Robinson, Sinéad Gleeson, and Jon McGregor) have chosen books by seven women and one man to be in contention for the £30,000 prize which looks for the best fiction, non-fiction and poetry in English from around the world. Six out of the eight titles are by British and Irish writers, with three out of Ireland alone (two of which are published by the same publisher, Tramp Press). The spirit of experimentation is also reflected in the strong showing of independent publishers and small presses (five out of eight).
Chair of judges Roger Robinson says: “It was such a joy to spend detailed and intimate time with the books nominated for the Rathbones Folio Prize and travel deep into their worlds. The judges chose the eight books on the shortlist because they are pushing at the edges of their forms in interesting ways, without sacrificing narrative or execution. The conversations between the judges may have been as edifying as the books themselves. From a judges’ vantage point, the future of book publishing looks incredibly healthy – and reading a book is still one of the most revolutionary things that one can do.”
The 2021 shortlist ranges from Amina Cain’s Indelicacy – a feminist fable about class and desire – and the exploration of the estates of South London through poetry and photography in Caleb Femi’s Poor, to a formally innovative, genre-bending memoir about domestic abuse in Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, and a feminist revision of Caribbean mermaid myths, in Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch.
In the darkly comic novel As You Were, poet Elaine Feeney tackles the intimate histories, institutional failures, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland, while Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat finds the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill haunting the life of a contemporary young mother, prompting her to turn detective. Doireann Ní Ghríofa is published by Dublin’s Tramp Press, also publishers of Sara Baume’s handiwork – which charts the author’s daily process of making and writing, and explores what it is to create and to live as an artist – while poet Rachel Long’s acclaimed debut collection My Darling from the Lions skewers sexual politics, religious awakenings and family quirks with wit, warmth and precision.
My thanks to the publishers and FMcM Associates for the free copies for review.
Young Writer of the Year Award 2020: Shortlist Reviews and Predictions
Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me. I’m pleased for this year’s panelists, especially blogging friend Marina Sofia, to have had the same opportunity, and I look forward to hearing who they choose as their shadow panel winner on December 3rd and then attending the virtual prize ceremony on December 10th.
At the time of the shortlisting, I happened to have already read Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan and was halfway through Catherine Cho’s memoir Inferno. I got the poetry collection Surge by Jay Bernard out from the library to have another go (after DNFing it last year), and the kind folk of FMcM Associates sent me the other two shortlisted books, a poetry collection and a novel, so that I could follow along with the shadow panel’s deliberations. Here are my brief thoughts on all five nominees.
Surge by Jay Bernard (2019)
As a writer-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, a research centre for radical Black history, in 2016, Bernard investigated the New Cross Massacre, a fire that killed 13 young people in 1981. In 2017, the tragedy found a horrific echo in the Grenfell Tower fire, which left 72 dead. This debut poetry collection bridges that quarter-century through protest poems from various perspectives, giving voice to victims and their family members and exploring the interplay between race, sexuality and violence. Patois comes in at several points, most notably in “Songbook.” I especially liked “Peg” and “Pride,” and the indictment of government indifference in “Blank”: “It-has-nothing-to-do-with-us today issued this statement: / those involved have defended their actions and been … acquitted / retired with full pay”. On the whole, I found it difficult to fully engage with this collection, but I am reliably informed that Bernard’s protest poems have more impact when performed aloud.
Readalikes: In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller, A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Inferno by Catherine Cho (2020)
Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She and her husband had returned to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration at her in-laws’ home. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced cameras were watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in a hospital emergency room, followed by a mental health ward. Cho alternates between her time in the mental hospital and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown, weaving in her family history and Korean sayings and legends. Twelve days: That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory. She captures extremes of suffering and joy in this vivid account. (Reviewed in full here.)
Readalikes: An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame and Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (2020)
At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens in Hong Kong and soon comes to a convenient arrangement with her aloof banker friend, Julian, who lets her live with him without paying rent and buys her whatever she wants. They have sex, yes, but he’s not her boyfriend per se, so when he’s transferred to London for six months, there’s no worry about hard feelings when her new friendship with Edith Zhang turns romantic. It gets a little more complicated, though, when Julian returns and she has to explain these relationships to her two partners and to herself. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like it would be an interesting plot, and the hook-up culture couldn’t be more foreign to me. But with Ava Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners (“I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat”). (Reviewed in full here.)
Readalikes: Besotted by Melissa Duclos and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (2020)
In the title poem, the arboreal fungus from the cover serves as “a bright, ancestral messenger // bursting through from one realm to another” like “the cones of God, the Pentecostal flame”. This debut collection is alive with striking imagery that draws links between the natural and the supernatural. Sex and grief, two major themes, are silhouetted against the backdrop of nature. Fields and forests are loci of meditation and epiphany, but also of clandestine encounters between men: “I came back often, // year on year, kneeling and being knelt for / in acts of secret worship, and now / each woodland smells quietly of sex”. Hewitt recalls travels to Berlin and Sweden, and charts his father’s rapid decline and death from an advanced cancer. A central section of translations of the middle-Irish legend “Buile Suibhne” is less memorable than the gorgeous portraits of flora and fauna and the moving words dedicated to the poet’s father: “You are not leaving, I know, // but shifting into image – my head / already is haunted with you” and “In this world, I believe, / there is nothing lost, only translated”.
Readalikes: Physical by Andrew McMillan and If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
Nightingale by Marina Kemp (2020)
Marguerite Demers, a 24-year-old nurse, has escaped Paris to be a live-in carer for elderly Jérôme Lanvier in southern France. From the start, she senses she’s out of place here – “She felt, as always in this village, that she was being observed”. She strikes up a friendship with a fellow outsider, an Iranian émigrée named Suki, who, in this story set in 2002, stands out for wearing a hijab. Everyone knows everyone here, and everyone has history with everyone else – flirtations, feuds, affairs, and more. Brigitte Brochon, unhappily married to a local farmer, predicts Marguerite will be just like the previous nurses who failed to hack it in service to the curmudgeonly Monsieur Lanvier. But Marguerite sticks up for herself and, though plagued by traumatic memories, makes her own bid for happiness. The novel deals sensitively with topics like bisexuality, euthanasia, and family estrangement, but the French provincial setting and fairly melodramatic plot struck me as old-fashioned. Still, the writing is strong enough to keep an eye out for what Kemp writes next. (U.S. title: Marguerite.)
Readalikes: French-set novels by Joanne Harris and Rose Tremain; The Hoarder by Jess Kidd
After last year’s unexpected winner – Raymond Antrobus for his poetry collection The Perseverance – I would have said that it’s time for a novel by a woman to win. However, I feel like a Dolan win would be too much of a repeat of 2017’s win (for Sally Rooney), and Kemp’s debut novel isn’t quite up to scratch. Much as I enjoyed Inferno, I can’t see it winning over these judges (three of whom are novelists: Kit de Waal, Sebastian Faulks and Tessa Hadley), though it would be suited to the Wellcome Book Prize if that comes back in 2021. So, to my surprise, I think it’s going to be another year for poetry.
I’ve been following the shadow panel’s thoughts via Marina’s blog and the others’ Instagram accounts and it looks like they are united in their admiration for the poetry collections, particularly the Hewitt. That would be my preference, too: I respond better to theme and style in poetry (Hewitt) than to voice and message (Bernard). However, I think that in 2020 the Times may try to trade its rather fusty image for something more woke, bearing in mind the Black Lives Matter significance and the unprecedented presence of a nonbinary author.
Shadow panel winner: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt
Official winner: Surge by Jay Bernard
Have you read anything from this year’s shortlist?
Young Writer of the Year Award: Shortlist Reviews and Predictions
Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me. I’m pleased for this year’s shadow panelists, a couple of whom are blogging friends (one I’ve met IRL), to have had the same opportunity, and I look forward to attending the prize ceremony at the London Library on December 5th.
I happened to have already read two of the shortlisted titles, the poetry collection The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus and the debut novel Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, which was one of my specific wishes/predictions. The kind folk of FMcM Associates sent me the other two shortlisted books, a short story collection and another debut novel, for blog reviews so that I could follow along with the shadow panel’s deliberations.
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield (2019)
These nine short stories are steeped in myth and magic, but often have a realistic shell. Only gradually do the fantastical or dystopian elements emerge, with the final paragraph delivering a delicious surprise. For instance, the narrator of “Mantis” attends a Catholic girls’ school and is caught up in a typical cycle of self-loathing and obsessing over boys. It’s only at the very end that we realize her extreme skin condition is actually a metamorphosis that enables her to protect herself. The settings are split between the city and the seaside; the perspective is divided almost perfectly down the middle between the first and third person. The body is a site of transformation, or a source of grotesque relics, as in “The Collectables,” in which a PhD student starts amassing body parts she could only have acquired via grave-robbing.
Two favorites for me were “Formerly Feral,” in which a 13-year-old girl acquires a wolf as a stepsister and increasingly starts to resemble her; and the final, title story, a post-apocalyptic one in which a man and a pregnant woman are alone in a fishing boat, floating above a drowned world and living as if outside of time. This one is really rather terrifying. I also liked “Cassandra After,” in which a dead girlfriend comes back – it reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, which I’m currently reading for #MARM. “Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax,” about a girl group experiencing Beatles-level fandom on a tour of the UK, felt like the odd one out to me in this collection.
Armfield’s prose is punchy, with invented verbs and condensed descriptions that just plain work: “Jenny had taken to poltergeisting round the house”; “skin like fork-clawed cottage cheese,” “the lobster shells gleam a slick vermilion” and “The sky is gory with stars.” There’s no shortage of feminist fantasy stories out there nowadays – Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado and Karen Russell are just a few others working in this vein – but the writing in Salt Slow really grabbed me even when the plots didn’t. I’ll be following Armfield’s career with interest.
Testament by Kim Sherwood (2018)
Eva Butler is a 24-year-old MA student specializing in documentary filmmaking. She is a live-in carer for her grandfather, the painter Joseph Silk (real name: József Zyyad), in his Fitzroy Park home. When Silk dies early on in the book, she realizes that she knows next to nothing about his past in Hungary. Learning that he wrote a testament about his Second World War experiences for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, she goes at once to read it and is distressed at what she finds. With the help of Felix, the museum’s curator, who did his PhD on Silk’s work, she travels to Budapest to track down the truth about her family.
Sherwood alternates between Eva’s quest and a recreation of József’s time in wartorn Europe. Cleverly, she renders the past sections more immediate by writing them in the present tense, whereas Eva’s first-person narrative is in the past tense. Although József escaped the worst of the Holocaust by being sentenced to forced labor instead of going to a concentration camp, his brother László and their friend Zuzka were in Theresienstadt, so readers get a more complete picture of the Jewish experience at the time. All three wind up in the Lake District after the war, rebuilding their lives and making decisions that will affect future generations.
It’s almost impossible to write anything new about the Holocaust these days, and overfamiliarity was certainly a roadblock for me here. I was especially reminded of Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, what with its focus on the Hungarian Jewish experience. However, I did appreciate the way Sherwood draws on her family history – her grandmother is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor – to consider how trauma still affects the second and third generation. This certainly doesn’t feel like a debut novel. It’s highly readable, and the emotional power of the story cannot be denied. The Young Writer of the Year Award is great for highlighting books that risk being overlooked: in a year dominated by The Testaments, poor Testament was otherwise likely to sink without notice.
Note: “Testament” is also the title of the poem written by Sherwood’s great-grandfather that she recited at her grandfather’s funeral – just as Eva does in the novel. It opens this Telegraph essay (paywalled, but reprinted in the paperback of Testament) that Sherwood wrote about her family history.
General thoughts and predictions:
Any of these books would be a worthy winner. However, as Raymond Antrobus has already won this year’s £30,000 Rathbones Folio Prize as well as the 2018 Geoffrey Dearmer Award from the Poetry Society, The Perseverance has had sufficient recognition – plus it’s a woman’s turn. Testament is accomplished, and likely to hold the widest appeal, but it strikes me as the safe choice. Salt Slow would be an edgier selection, and feels quite timely and fresh. But Stubborn Archivist has stuck with me since I reviewed it in March. I called it “Knausgaard for the Sally Rooney generation” and wrote that “the last book to have struck me as truly ‘novel’ in the same way was Lincoln in the Bardo.” From a glance at the shadow panel’s reviews thus far, I fear it may prove too divisive for them, though.
Based on my gut instincts and a bit of canny thinking about the shadow panelists and judges, here are my predictions:
- What they will pick: Testament [but they might surprise me and go with Salt Slow or Stubborn Archivist]
- What they should pick: Salt Slow
Official Judging Panel:
- What they will pick: Stubborn Archivist [but they might surprise me and go with Salt Slow]
- What they should pick: Stubborn Archivist
I understand that the shadow panel is meeting today for their in-person deliberations. I wish them luck! Their pick will be announced on the 28th. I’ll be intrigued to see which book they select, and how it compares with the official winner on December 5th.