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It’s interesting when book prizes such as the Rathbones Folio Prize consider contenders from very different genres and styles. This year’s shortlist places nonfiction alongside poetry and fiction. But even the nominated fiction including Burns’ highly stylized “Milkman” and the contemporary “Ordinary People” varies wildly. Most striking are the lengths of the two historical novels in contention: “Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile” by Alice Jolly which is 640 pages and “West” by Carys Davies which is a mere 149 pages. In a way it feels impossible that these books can be judged against each other, but since they have included such a diverse list I assume the judges must only be considering the excellence of the book itself and how well they believe the authors succeeded within the parameters of form. In this way, “West” excels in how it tells a straightforward, succinct and simple story that has a much bigger meaning.

In early 19th century America a widower named Cy Bellman journeys out to the wild west leaving behind his adolescent daughter Bess. He’s seen a news report that the bones of colossal unknown beasts were discovered there so he sets out hoping to discover if any of these rare animals survive. His mission is undoubtably foolish as such a dangerous journey at this time takes years and means he has to entrust the business of his farm and the raising of his daughter to his sister Julie. It’s not even an endeavour to strike it rich like in a gold rush, but just to witness a heretofore unknown creature of enormous size. We follow the years of his hazardous journey alongside the perils his daughter Bess faces as she grows into womanhood. It’s utterly gripping and poignantly told.

It’s a complicated task to portray a male character who acts with such arrogance and stubborn pride. In a way I hated Cy for abandoning his responsibilities to his daughter and leaving a life where he could have been quite content. He even had the prospect of a new romance with a local woman who was a widow. But at the same time he was merely asserting his independence to pursue his dream (even if he was only acting on what today would be considered a mid-life crisis.) It’s a radical act in response to the weight of responsibility he feels and his unresolved grief at the loss of Bess’ mother. Clearly Cy wasn’t doing what was morally or logically right, but Davies effectively shows the complexity of his decision.

It can be tricky for an author to portray a man acting selfishly and at the expense of others in a sympathetic way – as I felt when reading the recently translated novel The Pine Islands. These novels have another interesting parallel of having non-white “sidekick” characters whose dilemmas are taken seriously while not being treated with equal weight to the primary white male character. Cy enlists the help of a Native American Shawnee teenage boy named ‘Old Woman From a Distance’ to help guide him. His tribulations are treated seriously and in a way I felt he was the most complex character in this novella. But Davies portrays all her characters in a way which maintains their integrity and highlights their sometimes horrific actions while not placing any judgements on them.

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Aside from these characters’ personal stories this novella seems to be saying something much bigger about the country as a whole and the human impulse to chase illusions. In America’s mission to expand and grow it paved over the land’s history and decimated the native people who inhabited it. The novel shows the casualties of this and the innate desire some people felt to connect with this forgotten history. At the same time it shows how pursing what seems most foolish can become the most important drive in an individual’s life. The novella opens up a lot of issues which leave subtle questions in the reader’s mind and I admired how it does all this with tremendous economy.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCarys Davies
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I really like book prizes which include both fiction and nonfiction because it encourages me to read something other than novels. This year's Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist includes two books of nonfiction and one book of poetry. I'm especially keen to read Ashleigh Young's “Can You Tolerate This?” which are essays exploring subjects such as isolation and debilitating shyness. But it also includes a few familiar novels which have also been listed for other prizes such as “Ordinary People” which is currently on the Women's Prize shortlist, “There There” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and “Milkman” which won the Man Booker Prize last year. 

In a way it's ironic that Anna Burns is on this list since the Folio Prize was initially set up in 2014 as a counterpoint to the Booker Prize because the founders of the Folio Prize considered the Booker to be leaning towards popular fiction over literary fiction. That “Milkman” won the Booker and is also on this year's “Women's Prize” shortlist really testifies to the cultural impact and popularity of this novel. When “Milkman” was first published in the Spring of 2018 it went largely unnoticed, but its inclusion on multiple book prize lists have made this novel one of the most bestselling and talked about in the past year! This is partly why I love book prizes which can really elevate a novel's status when so many great books get lost amidst a profusion of new publications. 

While I personally had mixed feelings about “Milkman” it's one I want to revisit on audio book since many have said this makes it a really different reading experience. I'm also especially interested in reading the novella “West” which has been so popular amongst many readers but also has some severe critics. And I'm especially keen to read “Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile” which looks like an expansive historical novel narrated from the perspective of an elderly maidservant. It's one I'd never heard about before this prize listed it. 

Have you read any of these books or are you curious to now? The winner will be announced on May 20th.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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