Folio Prize 2015: shortlist reviews

The second Folio Prize for Fiction will be awarded this year, and here are my thoughts on the shortlist.

Those I’ve read…

Outline by Rachel Cusk
One-line summary: An unnamed writer gets in a plane on her way to Greece to teach a writing course, and from that moment on we hear the stories, the problems, and the dreams of those she meets.
Review: There are a number of books about writing and art on this year’s shortlist, and this is one of them. I really enjoyed this, and thought the way Cusk barely revealed anything about her protagonist was interesting. What I loved most is that this is a book about the stories everyone has inside them, and a book about perspective, memory, and also longing. 

10:04 by Ben Lerner

One-line summary: The narrator of 10:04 is a writer navigating life in New York – through book proposals, women, a friend who wants him to help her conceive a child, superstorms, and a potentially fatal heart condition.
Review: Another of the books about writing. I’m not entirely sure what I thought – at first I wasn’t really into the book, but that changed as I read further, and the protagonist was nowhere near as annoying as I thought he would be. I suspect this is the kind of book you get more out of the more you read it. I’ve only read it once, so I can’t say much more than I had a decent time, fun in parts, and I wouldn’t not read it again.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
One-line summary: A love story, a story of a marriage falling apart, and a story of a relationship being rebuilt in a new way.
Review: Dept. of Speculation might be prose fiction, but it has the rhythms of poetry at times. And it might be short, but somehow Cusk manages to convey the building of lives and loves and relationships within its compact pages. I loved it.

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

One-line summary: Eight-year-old Ajay moves from India to America with his parents and older brother Birju in the late 1970s, but the biggest change is not cultural, it’s when Birju is badly injured in an accident, and the family must learn to cope with a life they never expected.
Review: Oh, this book hurts. It’s sad, and funny, and sweet, and nasty. It’s blisteringly honest, and filled with love in all its uplifting, damaging forms, and beautifully written, and it made my heart ache and my eyes fill with tears. 

How to be Both by Ali Smith 
One-line summary: A split narrative, with one following a teenage girl who has lost her mother, a child of the 1960s, and the other a painter in 1460s Italy. 
Review: I read this book when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014, and really enjoyed it. It’s both a book about the creation of art, and one that has a story, and I think Smith manages not to sacrifice one for the other.

And those I haven’t…
Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
One-line summary: The murder of a young man in Kenya in 2007 is the gateway to a book about 50 years of Kenyan history, both personal and political.
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
One-line summary: Sisters Elf and Yoli come back together when Elf, a successful pianist tries to kill herself, and Yoli, a complete mess at life, is called in to help her recover.
Review: I’m two chapters into this book, and already I’m falling in love and preparing myself for heartache.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
One-line summary: A woman in 1960s Ireland tries to rebuild her life after the death of her husband.
•The Folio Prize 2015 will be awarded on Monday, March 23.

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