They’ve announced the eight-book-long shortlist for this year’s Folio Prize. The winner will be announced on March 23. The descriptions below come from publisher’s blurbs and do not indicate my own feelings about the books (for example, I did not care for, but did not hate, All My Puny Sorrows when it came up for our Shadow Giller ranking — but I loved Dept. of Speculation).
10:04, by Ben Lerner
In the last year, the narrator of 10:04 has enjoyed unlikely literary success, has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal medical condition, and has been asked by his best friend to help her conceive a child. In a New York of increasingly frequent superstorms and social unrest, he must reckon with his own mortality and the prospect of fatherhood in a city that might soon be underwater.
A writer whose work Jonathan Franzen has called “hilarious . . . cracklingly intelligent . . . and original in every sentence,” Lerner captures what it’s like to be alive now, during the twilight of an empire, when the difficulty of imagining a future is changing our relationship to both the present and the past.
All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews
Elf and Yoli are sisters. While on the surface Elfrieda’s life is enviable (she’s a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, and happily married) and Yolandi’s a mess (she’s divorced and broke, with two teenagers growing up too quickly), they are fiercely close — raised in a Mennonite household and sharing the hardship of Elf’s desire to end her life. After Elf’s latest attempt, Yoli must quickly determine how to keep her family from falling apart, how to keep her own heart from breaking, and what it means to love someone who wants to die.
All My Puny Sorrows is the latest novel from Miriam Toews, one of Canada’s most beloved authors — not only because her work is rich with deep human feeling and compassion but because her observations are knife-sharp and her books wickedly funny. And this is Toews at her finest: a story that is as much a comedy as it is a tragedy, a goodbye grin from the friend who taught you how to live.
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
In the beginning, it was easy to imagine their future. They were young and giddy, sure of themselves and of their love for each other. “Dept. of Speculation” was their code name for all the thrilling uncertainties that lay ahead. Then they got married, had a child and navigated the familiar calamities of family life—a colicky baby, a faltering relationship, stalled ambitions.
When their marriage reaches a sudden breaking point, the wife tries to retrace the steps that have led them to this place, invoking everything from Kafka to the Stoics to doomed Russian cosmonauts as she analyzes what is lost and what remains. In language that shimmers with rage and longing and wit, Offill has created a brilliantly suspenseful love story—a novel to read in one sitting, even as its piercing meditations linger long after the last page.
Click here for The Mookse and the Gripes review of Dept. of Speculation.
Dust, by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
When a young man is gunned down in the streets of Nairobi, his grief-stricken father and sister bring his body back to their crumbling home in the Kenyan drylands. But the murder has stirred up memories long since buried, precipitating a series of events no one could have foreseen. As the truth unfolds, we come to learn the secrets held by this parched landscape, hidden deep within the shared past of a family and their conflicted nation. Spanning Kenya’s turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Dust is spellbinding debut from a breathtaking new voice in literature.
Family Life, by Akhil Sharma
Hailed as a “supreme storyteller” (Philadelphia Inquirer) for his “cunning, dismaying and beautifully conceived” fiction (New York Times), Akhil Sharma is possessed of a narrative voice “as hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky” (The Nation). In his highly anticipated second novel, Family Life, he delivers a story of astonishing intensity and emotional precision.
We meet the Mishra family in Delhi in 1978, where eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju play cricket in the streets, waiting for the day when their plane tickets will arrive and they and their mother can fly across the world and join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more: when automatic glass doors open before them, they feel that surely they must have been mistaken for somebody important. Pressing an elevator button and the elevator closing its doors and rising, they have a feeling of power at the fact that the elevator is obeying them. Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes, leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land. Ajay, the family’s younger son, prays to a God he envisions as Superman, longing to find his place amid the ruins of his family’s new life.
Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.
How to be both, by Ali Smith
Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith’s novels are like nothing else. A true original, she is a one-of-a-kind literary sensation. Her novels consistently attract serious acclaim and discussion—and have won her a dedicated readership who are drawn again and again to the warmth, humanity and humor of her voice.
How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance.
Click here for The Mookse and the Gripes review of How to be both.
Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín
From one of contemporary literature’s bestselling, critically acclaimed and beloved authors, the magnificent, instant New York Times bestselling novel set in Ireland, about a fiercely compelling young widow and mother of four, navigating grief and fear, struggling for hope.
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.
Nora Webster is a masterpiece in character study by a writer at the zenith of his career, “beautiful and daring” (The New York Times Book Review) and able to “sneak up on readers and capture their imaginations” (USA TODAY). In Nora Webster, Tóibín has created a character as iconic, engaging and memorable as Madame Bovary or Hedda Gabler.
Outline, by Rachel Cusk
A man and a woman are seated next to each other on a plane. They get to talking — about their destination, their careers, their families. Grievances are aired, family tragedies discussed, marriages and divorces analyzed. An intimacy is established as two strangers contrast their own fictions about their lives.
Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a novel in ten conversations. Spare and stark, it follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during one oppressively hot summer in Athens. She leads her students in storytelling exercises. She meets other visiting writers for dinner and discourse. She goes swimming in the Ionian Sea with her neighbor from the plane. The people she encounters speak volubly about themselves: their fantasies, anxieties, pet theories, regrets, and longings. And through these disclosures, a portrait of the narrator is drawn by contrast, a portrait of a woman learning to face a great loss.
Outline takes a hard look at the things that are hardest to speak about. It brilliantly captures conversations, investigates people’s motivations for storytelling, and questions their ability to ever do so honestly or unselfishly. In doing so it bares the deepest impulses behind the craft of fiction writing. This is Rachel Cusk’s finest work yet, and one of the most startling, brilliant, original novels of recent years.
If you have any thoughts on these books or on the prize in general, please share them!