The Rathbones Folio Prize: Thoughts on the Shortlist

The Rathbones Folio Prize definitely has a USP: Books are nominated by members of its Academy rather than publishers. The Folio Academy members are mostly writers and critics, nominated by the Prize Foundation or their peers and now number around 250. This leads to a rather different set of books (published in the previous year) being picked for the shortlist to be judged by a panel of three Academy members. It’s a rich prize too, with £30k for the winner. The Folio Academy members also provide mentorships for young writers in association with First Story.

This year’s judges are Paul Farley, Nikita Lalwani and Ross Raisin and the prize will be awarded on March 23rd at the British Library. By the way, if you want something to do the day before, on Sunday 22nd, there will be a ‘Write a Novel in a Day’ half day event featuring all shortlisted authors, the judges and this year’s mentorship mentees – find out more here.

I’m delighted to have been invited to the ceremony, but also thanks to the Prize’s PR bods (FMcM Associates – thank you), I received a set of the shortlisted books to introduce to you and comment on. Amazingly – but such is the prize’s wide scope – I haven’t read any of them yet, although I will attempt to remedy that by as much as I can before the Award ceremony. Let me introduce you to the shortlisted books:

I have heard so much about Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, her first to be written in English, which from the buzz and longlistings for the Women’s Prize and Booker, surely has to be a contender? Susan at A Life in Books says this novel, which is about those trying to cross into the USA from Mexico, many of whom are unaccompanied children is, “A humane and at times beautiful response to a desperate global problem.”

Gleeson’s Constellations is a book of essays about inhabiting a woman’s body, and the pain she has suffered since having arthritis early on in her life. Rebecca at Bookish Beck says that the subjects range from the “seemingly trivial to life-and-death matters as she writes about hairstyles, blood types, pregnancy, the abortion debate in Ireland and having a rare type of leukaemia.” This is the first book I am reading from the shortlist.

It is lovely to see a book of poetry included in the shortlist. I’ll admit, that when I saw that the first half of Fiona Benson’s book Vertigo & Ghost was a response to the #MeToo behaviour of Zeus, my heart fell a little – as I didn’t get on with Alice Oswald’s forty-page poem of Odysseus’s head floating down the river in Falling Awake. However, having read the first few in her Zeus sequence, I totally got it, and can’t wait to read the whole book which went on to win the Forward Prize for Poetry, (see also Paul’s review here).

The mystery behind Laura Cumming’s biographical memoir On Chapel Sands is really intriguing. She tells the story of her mother, and how as a child, Betty was abducted from the beach in 1929, found nearby five days later. Betty only found out about the kidnapping fifty years later. Cumming uses her art critic’s eye to tease out the mystery. I really enjoy this kind of memoir (see my review of Richard Beard’s memoir The Day That Went Missing which was Folio shortlisted in 2018 here), so I’m looking forward to reading this book very much. Jacquiwine also really enjoyed it – see her review here.

I generally enjoy novellas more than short stories, so I’m hoping that James Lasdun’s Victory will work for me. It comprises two such, ‘darkly comic’ ones according to the blurb, about relationships between men and women from a male perspective; the first involves an old flame reappearing, the second accusations of historic sexual assault.

In comparison, I’m finding the green cover of Grand Union, Zadie Smith’s first collection of short stories rather lurid. The stories vary in length from a few pages to 25 or so, and they are set in varying times and genres. I recently discovered after listening to an interview with rapper/actor Doc Brown (currently in the BBC’s The Split) that he is Zadie’s younger brother, and somehow, don’t ask me why, that warms me towards Smith, who has suffered from being over-hyped. I can’t believe I’ve only read N-W by her (see here), which I did enjoy.

Ben Lerner is another author who has a cult following, but I’ve yet to read his first two novels. The premise and blurb of his third, The Topeka School, sort of reminds me of Old School by Tobias Wolff (see here) – another novel set in the senior year of High School that is unashamedly literary in style. I hope I will enjoy the voice of Lerner’s narrator.

Finally, I’m brought to the only book on this list about which I knew nothing. Azadeh Moaveni’s work of reportage, Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS, was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction last year. This book will surely be fascinating and enlightening, if very unsettling to read, about these young women who left their homes to join the terrorist organisation.

Have you read any of these books? Which should I read next?
Do you follow the Rathbones Folio Prize? Do share your opinions on this shortlist

9 thoughts on “The Rathbones Folio Prize: Thoughts on the Shortlist

  1. Lois says:

    What an interesting array of books and I must admit to not having heard of the prize itself. However, I heard parts of ‘Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS’, abridged for the 9.45 am slot on BBC Radio 4 last week, which is still available on SOUNDS.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    Thanks for the link, Annabel. This is such a wide-ranging shortlist, isn’t it. I’m looking forward to reading the Lerner having loved 10:04, and also Constellations which I hope you’ll review.

  3. Laura says:

    I found Grand Union a very mixed bag, although I loved NW and Swing Time.

    There’s much to admire about Lost Children Archive but ultimately I thought it was too self-conscious and intertextual. I know others felt very differently though!

    I’ve read Lerner’s first two novels and was hugely impressed by 10:04 in particular. Looking forward to your thoughts on The Topeka School.

  4. kimbofo says:

    Goodness, how are they going to compare that eclectic lot to come up with a winner? The only one I’ve read is Constellations and it was one of my favourite books of 2019.

  5. Tracey says:

    Zadie Smith is an interesting and intelligent writer – that doesn’t mean that all her work is brilliant, but her lesser work is at the top end of what many average, and significantly more over-hyped, writers, attain.

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