In the hierarchies of literary praise there has often been an unspoken understanding that novelists are somehow more deserving of acclaim than writers of non-fiction. This has to change
The Rathbones Folio prize for literature was awarded this week to The Return, Hisham Matar’s memoir about his father, whose political opposition to Muammar Gadaffi almost certainly cost him his life in a massacre in a Tripoli prison in 1996. “It could have been a novel if we had not known it was a real story,” said Ahdaf Soueif, chair of the judges. Indeed, in the book’s opening pages comes a story about Matar’s brother fleeing through the mountains from sinister figures who lurk threateningly outside his Swiss boarding school. What would in fiction be thrilling is – because true – chilling. What radiates is terror, not excitement. Matar’s deftness in sentence and storytelling, combined with reported and remembered detail, make for something special.
The prize is one of the few mainstream literary awards to place fiction and non-fiction alongside each other, and the shortlist contained several authors who have slipped between fiction and non-fiction in their careers: Matar has hitherto been better known for his novels, whereas Francis Spufford is an acclaimed non-fiction writer whose debut novel, Golden Hill, has bewitched readers. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, about her fierce love for her transgender partner, and Laura Cumming’s The Vanishing Man, about a man’s obsession with Velázquez, are works of non-fiction that are as formally playful and inventive as any number of novels.