It knocked the Earth six-and-a-half inches off its axis and moved Japan four metres closer to the US: a “harrowing and inspiring” account of the 2011 tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people in Japan has won the Rathbones Folio prize.
Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami took the £20,000 prize ahead of several high-profile fiction competitors, including Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 and Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. Ghosts of the Tsunami was one of three non-fiction books up for the prize – alongside Richard Beard’s memoir The Day That Went Missing and Xiaolu Guo’s Once Upon a Time in the East. The award only began accepting non-fiction two years ago, as part of a widening of its remit to reward excellence in forms beyond fiction writing.
As an award-winning foreign correspondent for the Independent and the Times, Lloyd Parry was living in Tokyo when the earthquake struck, resulting in a 120ft-high tsunami hitting north-east Japan and a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. He would spend the next six years documenting the disaster that killed more than 18,000 people, amassing hundreds of firsthand accounts to reveal the national trauma that lingered long after the sea retreated.
Delving into Japan’s folklore around grief and death, Lloyd Parry discovers strange and harrowing stories of survivors attempting to make sense of their losses, including those who never recovered a body, who, in many cases, sought the help of mediums in the hope of locating their loved ones’ remains. Ghost stories began to take shape: Christian, Shinto and Buddhist priests are repeatedly summoned to quell unhappy spirits as reports of possessions rise; while a group of friends report being visited by the ghost of a dead woman in their temporary housing, leaving dampness on the cushion they believed she had been sitting on.
Studying the hundreds of accounts, Lloyd Parry comes to understand that “everyone’s grief is different, and that it differs in small and subtle ways according to the circumstances of loss”.
“You don’t expect a work of non-fiction to express itself with such literary beauty, but still hold a very unshaking mirror to real events in the real world,” said chair of judges, novelist Jim Crace, who was joined by authors Nikesh Shukla and Kate Summerscale. “It was that combination of reportage and high literature that was so impressive. When I finished reading this book, not only did it close the gap between me and Japan, it also closed the gap between my understanding of my culture and every other culture in the world. I know that is a grand claim to make, but it gave me a sense of the universality of humankind that would improve my understanding of any differences in any community in the world that I come across in the future. It was an improving experience. This is a book to close cultural gaps.”
Lloyd Parry received his prize at a ceremony in London on Tuesday night.
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