Margo Jefferson wins 2023 Rathbones Folio prize

<span>Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Critic and author Margo Jefferson has won the 2023 Rathbones Folio prize for her memoir, described by the judges as “astounding and rhapsodic”.

Jefferson’s Constructing a Nervous System is the first winner of the prize’s new structure, in which three category prizes are awarded, with the overall winner being chosen from these.

Constructing a Nervous System won the nonfiction category, while the fiction award was won by Michelle de Kretser for Scary Monsters. The poetry prize was taken by Victoria Adukwei Bulley for her debut collection Quiet.

The category winners each receive £2,000, with Jefferson getting an additional £30,000 for winning the overall award.

In Constructing a Nervous System, Jefferson – who won the Pulitzer prize for criticism in 1995 – explores Black womanhood through an examination of the pop culture icons she grew up with, and combines memoir and criticism. Reviewing the book in the Observer, Abhrajyoti Chakraborty said it was “impossible not to be stirred by her odes to fellow black American strivers of excellence”.

The judges for the prize are chosen from the members of the Folio Academy, and this year’s panel was made up of authors Ali Smith, Jackie Kay and Guy Gunaratne.

They said Constructing a Nervous System was “wholly a deeply moving delight” and a “book unlike any other; a thrilling, generous, spirited and surprising read that remakes culture, redresses history, renews and repurposes everything it touches, and passes on these gifts of reinvention and renewal to everyone who’ll read it.”

The other shortlisted books in the nonfiction category were Will Ashon’s The Passengers, Amy Bloom’s In Love, Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist and Darren McGarvey’s The Social Distance Between Us.

Related: Constructing a Nervous System review – a deeply personal account of black female identity

De Kretser’s Scary Monsters contains two first-person narratives, one set in 1981 and the other in a dystopian near-future; the order in which they are read is left to the reader.

The judges described Scary Monsters as a “work of beautifully composed genius”. “This is a book that troubles and disquiets, dazzles and delights, and with lively wit and intelligence, will also make you laugh darkly,” the judges added. Anthony Cummins in the Guardian described the book as “slyly intelligent”.

Scary Monsters was joined on the fiction shortlist by NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory, Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour, Daisy Hildyard’s Emergency and Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea.

Adukwei Bulley is an alumna of the Barbican Young Poets and recipient of an Eric Gregory award. The judges said Quiet was “a quiet revolution of a book – subtle, supple and serious”.

“Tender and true, complex and profound, Quiet is a beautiful balancing act of a book – a debut that brings Adukwei Bulley fully formed, starting something,” they added.

The poetry shortlist was made up of Fiona Benson’s Ephemeron, Zaffar Kunial’s England’s Green, Yomi Sode’s Manorism and Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa’s Cane, Corn & Gully, alongside Adukwei Bulley’s Quiet.

Previous Folio prize winners include Colm Tóibín, Carmen Maria Machado, Raymond Antrobus, Hisham Matar and George Saunders.