Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist 2021

The Rathbones Folio Prize commenced in 2014, under the name of the “Folio Prize” as it was sponsored by the London based publisher “The Folio Society” for its first two years. There was no prize in 2016.  Since 2017 it has been sponsored by Rathbones Investment Management.

The prize was created after a group “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking…leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction” its launch also coincided with the Booker’s decision to open the award up to international writers, writing in English, in 2013. However, during the first two years the prize was presented to an English language book of fiction published in the UK by an author from any country. The prize dropped from £40,000 in 2014 and 2015 to £20,000 in 2017 and 2018, then climbed to £30,000 from 2019 onwards.

Since Rathbone’s sponsorship, from 2017, the prize was awarded to the best new work of literature published in the English language during a given year, regardless of form (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry).

“The jury for the prize is called the Academy, a body of more than 250 writers and critics that includes Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, A. S. Byatt, Zadie Smith and J. M. Coetzee. Books are nominated by members of the Academy, three each, ranked. Points are given to each book depending on how many first, second or third rankings are earned. The top scoring books are made into a longlist of 60 books (80 in the first two years). The list of nominated titles is then judged by a panel of three to five judges drawn from the Academy who select a shortlist of eight and the final winner.” (Thanks Wikipedia) A full membership listing can be found here.

On 11 February 2021, the shortlist for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize was announced, here are those works (listed in alphabetical order by author surname). The blurbs are taken straight from the publishers.

Sara Baume, ‘handiwork’ (Tramp Press) – Non-Fiction

handiwork is a contemplative short narrative from acclaimed writer and visual artist Sara Baume. It charts her daily process of making and writing, exploring what it is to create and to live as an artist. handiwork offers observations at once gentle and devastating, on the nature of art, grief and a life lived well. Baume’s first work of non-fiction offers readers a glimpse into the process of one Ireland’s best writers, written with the keen eye for nature and beauty as well as the extraordinary versatility Sara Baume’s fans have come to expect.

Amina Cain, ‘Indelicacy’ (Daunt Books)

In an undefined era and place, a cleaning woman at a museum of art aspires to do more than simply dust the paintings around her.  She dreams of having the liberty to explore them in writing, and so must find the way to win herself the security and time to use her mind. She escapes her lot by marrying a rich man, but having gained a husband, a house, high society and a maid, she finds that her new life of privilege is no less constrained. Not only has she taken up different forms of time-consuming labour — social and erotic — but she is now, however passively, forcing other women to clean up after her. Perhaps another and more drastic solution is necessary?

Indelicacy is an exquisite gem of a novel about class, desire, friendship, art, and the battle to find one’s true calling.

Elaine Feeney, ‘As You Were’ (Harvill Secker)

Sinead Hynes is a tough, driven, funny young property developer with a terrifying secret.

No-one knows it: not her fellow patients in a failing hospital, and certainly not her family. She has confided only in Google and a shiny magpie.

But she can’t go on like this, tirelessly trying to outstrip her past and in mortal fear of her future. Across the ward, Margaret Rose is running her chaotic family from her rose-gold Nokia. In the neighbouring bed, Jane, rarely but piercingly lucid, is searching for a decent bra and for someone to listen. Sinead needs them both.

As You Were is about intimate histories, institutional failures, the kindness of strangers, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland. It is about women’s stories and women’s struggles. It is about seizing the moment to be free.

Wildly funny, desperately tragic, inventive and irrepressible, As You Were introduces a brilliant voice in Irish fiction with a book that is absolutely of our times.

Caleb Femi, ‘Poor’ (Penguin) – Poetry

What is it like to grow up in a place where the same police officer who told your primary school class they were special stops and searches you at 13 because ‘you fit the description of a man’ – and where it is possible to walk two and a half miles through an estate of 1,444 homes without ever touching the ground?

In Poor, Caleb Femi combines poetry and original photography to explore the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys of young Black boys in twenty-first century Peckham. He contemplates the ways in which they are informed by the built environment of concrete walls and gentrifying neighbourhoods that form their stage, writes a coded, near-mythical history of the personalities and sagas of his South London youth, and pays tribute to the rappers and artists who spoke to their lives.

Above all, this is a tribute to the world that shaped a poet, and to the people forging difficult lives and finding magic within it. As Femi writes in one of the final poems of this book: ‘I have never loved anything the way I love the endz.’

Rachel Long, ‘My Darling from the Lions’ (Picador) – Poetry

Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems, My Darling from the Lions, announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.

Each poem has a vivid story to tell – of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion or sexual awakening – stories that are, by turn, emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny and outrageous.

Long reveals herself as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment. But it’s her refreshing commitment to the power of the individual poem that will leave the reader turning each page in eager anticipation: here is an immediate, wide-awake poetry that entertains royally, without sacrificing a note of its urgency or remarkable skill.

Carmen Maria Machado, ‘In the Dream House’ (Serpent’s Tail) – A Memoir

In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing experience with a charismatic but volatile woman, this is a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse.

Each chapter views the relationship through a different lens, as Machado holds events up to the light and examines them from distinct angles. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction, infusing all with her characteristic wit, playfulness and openness to enquiry. The result is a powerful book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa, ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ (Tramp Press)

A true original, this stunning prose debut by Doireann Ní Ghríofa weaves two stories together. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem that reaches across the centuries to another poet. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy in her own life. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with finding out the rest of the story.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa has sculpted a fluid hybrid of essay and autofiction to explore the ways in which a life can be changed in response to the discovery of another’s – in this case, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, famously referred to by Peter Levi as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’

A devastating and timeless tale about finding your voice by freeing another’s.

Monique Roffey, ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ (Peepal Tree Press)

April 1976: St Constance, a tiny Caribbean village on the island of Black Conch, at the start of the rainy season. A fisherman sings to himself in his pirogue, waiting for a catch – but attracts a sea-dweller he doesn’t expect. Aycayia, a beautiful young woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid, has been swimming the Caribbean Sea for centuries. And she is entranced by this man David and his song.

But her fascination is her undoing. She hears his boat’s engine again and follows it, and finds herself at the mercy of American tourists, landed on the island for the annual fishing competition. After a fearsome battle, she is pulled out of the sea and strung up on the dock as a trophy. It is David who rescues her, and gently wins her trust – as slowly, painfully, she starts to transform into a woman again. But transformations are not always permanent, and jealousy, like love, can have the force of a hurricane, and last much longer

The novel’s characters are an unlikely mix: a mermaid, a fisherman, a deaf boy, a Caribbean artist and sweetman and a benevolent white landowner. Miss Arcadia Rain’s own love story is interwoven with Aycayia and David’s and the rivalries and affections in both family and community are brought brilliantly to life. Themes of unconditional love, friendship, family and loss, are examined without sentimentality. Roffey manages to write convincingly about a mermaid, a ‘legend drawn from the sea’, returned to land, to survive, heal and live again, as a real woman in modern times.

This year’s judges are T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Roger Robinson, the Irish writer, editor and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson and novelist and short story writer Jon McGregor. A well-balanced jury indeed, the winner could be the Irish debut novel (Feeney) or the Irish non-fiction (Baume) or one of the two poetry collections or any of the other four titles!!!

The 2020 Prize was awarded to Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli for her book ‘Lost Children Archive’ (Fourth Estate) becoming the first female writer to win the award.

Astute readers and followers of awards will have noticed that Monique Roffey’s wonderful ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ has appeared on yet another award list and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ was also longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize announced only a week prior, and Sara Baume was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize back in 2017 for her novel ‘A Line Made By Walking’.

I’ve recently reviewed Monique Roffey’s novel and will possibly get to Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s, a few others are tempting (especially Sara Baume’s ‘handiwork’) however I am unlikely to get to many of these books before the winner is announced on 24 March 2021.

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