Carmen Maria Machado’s examination of her own experience of domestic abuse from a female partner, In the Dream House (Serpent’s Tail), has won the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize, worth £30,000.
Published by Graywolf Press in the US, In the Dream House explores the American author’s relationship with a "charismatic but volatile woman” and “breaks down the idea of what the memoir form can do and be,” according to the prize's organisers. Its victory was a unanimous decision from judges Roger Robinson, Sinéad Gleeson and Jon McGregor.
Robinson said the winning title shines a light on an underrepresented issue. “Carmen Maria Machado documents, in great detail, the descent of lives into obsessiveness, possession and, eventually, abuse among the queer community in which this is not often documented in literature. This already makes this book substantial. But it is its challenging of memoir form that is even more impressive. Machado breaks it down into short, sharp vignettes, written in impeccable prose, and mixes up the timeline."
He added: "As the reader, In the Dream House gives me a feeling of traumatic fragmentation, so you have that constant tension as to what might be revealed next, like a veritable house of horror ride.”
Gleeson said: “Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is an exceptional, important book. It takes everything a reader expects from a memoir, and upends and deconstructs it, playing with the possibilities of the form. Machado explores queerness, domestic violence and bodies in a multi-genre masterpiece, told in taut, stunning prose.”
Meanwhile, McGregor described the book as "a compelling memoir, a striking piece of storytelling, and a work of art". He said: "[It] has changed me—expanded me—as a reader and a person, and I’m not sure how much more we can ask of the books that we choose to celebrate.”
Machado’s entry was shortlisted alongside Monique Roffey’s Costa Prize-winning The Mermaid of Black Conch (Peepal Tree Press), Tramp Press titles A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa and handiwork by Sara Baume, Amina Cain's Indelicacy (Daunt Books), Elaine Feeney’s As You Were (Harvill Secker), Caleb Femi's Poor (Penguin) and Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions (Picador).
Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body & Other Parties, was also published by Serpent's Tail and Graywolf Press. She has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. She is based in Philadelphia and holds the Abrams artist-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Rathbones Folio Prize is open to fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and is the flagship of a programme which also includes the Rathbones Folio Prize Mentorships for aspiring young writers and Rathbones Folio Prize Sessions at literary festivals across the UK.