Bookworm, or I Wish I’d Written This

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Everyone’s been raving about Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, so I feel like I’m already late to the party, even though it was only published a couple of months ago. But anybody who’s not read this yet: I’m here to tell you that it lives up to expectations. Mangan’s tour through the books she read in her childhood and adolescence is absorbing not just because it brings back fond memories of books you’d forgotten you’d ever read (for me: Thimble Summer; Jill’s Gymkhana; Z for Zachariah; Fireweed), but because it somehow recaptures what it felt like to be so transported by a book that you literally didn’t hear the sounds of the outside world. Like Mangan, this got me into trouble as a child; I was once so enraptured by reading Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes at a hellish summer activity holiday that I didn’t hear multiple commands from our bullying course instructor, who was not impressed by my explanation that I hadn’t, in fact, been deliberately ignoring her.

I came for the books but I was just as impressed with Mangan’s loving caricatures of herself and her family. I find it very difficult to come across books that I think are genuinely funny without becoming uncomfortable, repetitive or over-laboured, and Mangan hits the nail right on the head. From her mother, a practical GP who has no time for reading and ‘had gone back to work within ten minutes of giving birth (“Stitch me up! Let’s get on!)’ to her book-buying but very quiet father (‘a man who spoke only when directly addressed and last initiated a conversation in nineteen sixty-NEVER’) to her scientific sister, who was unimpressed by What Katy Did (‘when she reached the end of Coolidge’s tale, she hurled it across the room shouting “Katy did nothing!” before stalking off to finish the kit car she was coding an automated build for behind the sofa.’ Mangan’s portrait of her own child self is equally hilarious, but also thought-provoking: ‘I was about to start school. This is not a good time for a misanthropic, introvert bookworm.’ Quoting Florence King, she writes: ‘Until I began school, I hadn’t realised I was a child. I thought I was just short.’

In many ways, Mangan and I were clearly quite different children. Like Mangan, I spent half of my time reading, sitting next to our Aga in the imaginatively-named ‘Aga chair’, but unlike Mangan, I spent the other half of my time roaming as far away from the house as I could get. In most of the photographs of me after I learned to walk, I’m running away from my parents towards something in the distance (forest; sea; dog). So Mangan’s love of home and the indoors above all else wasn’t the same for me. However, our feelings about school are obviously shared. We also seem to have read almost all the same books, although I often disagreed with her assessments of them – which didn’t affect my enjoyment of Bookworm in the slightest. I dutifully read all the Narnia books as a child but never really liked them, and hate them as an adult, while I was also pretty blind to the charms of The Railway Children (give me the Psammead or the Would-be-Goods), The Secret Garden (would rather read A Little Princess) or even Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (I still don’t like weird deviations from reality). While I adored Tom’s Midnight Garden – which I encountered, like many other books, through the BBC’s Jackanory – I loved Charlotte Sometimes and Marianne Dreams, two other weird children’s novels from the same generation, even more. And while I was happy to see Mangan criticise the sentimentality of Anne of Green Gables, I can’t agree that it reads better if you’re an adult – and would like to give her the Emily of New Moon series (or Anne with an E on Netflix).

The book also sparked memories of lesser-known novels that are unsurprisingly not mentioned in Bookworm but which were so important in my childhood. Leaving aside everything I read in the US for now, does anyone else remember The Mennyms, a creepily disturbing series about a household of living rag dolls who have to somehow survive in a world made for humans? Or Vlad the Drac (Jackanory again), a not-very-well-written series about a miniature vegetarian vampire? Or Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky, a children’s SF novel about life on a space station? Or John Christopher’s bizarre The Lotus Caves, set on the moon? Or L.J. Smith’s The Forbidden Game trilogy, which starts with an evil board game and proceeds with impeccable story structure? Or – more loved than any of the others – Lionel Davidson’s eerie and unforgettable Under Plum Lake? 

Finally (and I could write three times as much about this book) I liked how Mangan dealt with the line between fantasy and reality in children’s literature. The belief that children, even very young children, absorb what they read uncritically has led to lots of very bad takes on what should and shouldn’t be in children’s books. Mangan quite rightly recognises that child (and adult) readers often skip over this line several times in the course of reading a single text, and that simple belief in the complete truth of a book is unlikely even for very young readers. She writes so well about one of my most-loved picture books, John Burningham’s Come Away From The Water, Shirley, which ‘juxtaposes imagination and reality without comment.’ As a child, I believed this book had been my grandmother’s when she was young (it obviously wasn’t as it was first published in 1977 – I suspect it was in fact a gift from my grandmother) and that it was somehow about her (her name was Shirley). It took me a long time to disentangle what was really going on with the book, but at no point did I believe the book was ‘true’ in the same way as other stories about my grandmother were true, even though I didn’t think it was completely ‘made-up’ either.

What was harder to deal with was the idea that books could talk to each other. As a child, I read all of the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace (a tremendously popular US series about growing up in early twentieth-century Minnesota) in which the heroine, Betsy, has brown braids and ‘teeth that were slightly parted in the middle’. As a seven-year-old, I became very confused when I read another book (I can’t remember what it was) in which the main character wishes she could have teeth parted in the middle ‘just like Betsy’s from Betsy-Tacy‘. But how did the books know about each other? I knew that Betsy was made up, so why was she mentioned in another book? HOW HAD THIS HAPPENED?

I’ve already written quite enough about Bookworm, and about childhood reading in general, so I’ll stop here, but I’d love to hear about others’ thoughts on this book, or on books read in childhood. What were your favourites? Did they match up with Mangan’s? Have you re-read books you hated as a child that you now love – or books you loved that you now can’t stand? What book did you love that nobody else has ever heard of?

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Reading round-up, April into May 2018

April was largely taken up with the Women’s Prize For Fiction longlist and the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, but I’ve started to catch up with some other things as we move into May.

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I highlighted You Think It, I’ll Say It as one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint. I’m a big Curtis Sittenfeld fan, though for me, nothing she’s written has ever quite beaten her debut, Prepa boarding-school expose that features a narrator who’s not so much unreliable as completely impossible to see past. Sittenfeld’s familiar strengths and weaknesses are on display in You Think It, I’ll Say It, her first short story collection. As this Independent review points out, Sittenfeld’s scope can sometimes feel a little too narrow, confined to white middle-class American men and women living comfortable and predictable lives. And yet, it’s from this that I think her greatest strengths emerge: her utter confidence in pinpointing the exact details of such lives, and saying the unspoken things that everybody else is thinking. But because, perhaps, of this familiar subject-matter, for me these stories worked best when they were least neat.

I wasn’t surprised to love ‘The Nominee’, a short story about Hillary Clinton that Sittenfeld is developing into a full-length book. Having just re-read American Wife, Sittenfeld’s novel about the life of a fictionalised version of Laura Bush, Alice Blackwell, it was fun to see Sittenfeld enter the psyche of a very different woman experiencing some of the same pressures as she thinks back on her own tenure as First Lady. The childhood taunt that follows this unnamed character – ‘You’re awfully opinionated for a girl’ – is certainly not something that would trouble Alice Blackwell, who wrestles with the opposite problem; has she blended far too seamlessly into other people’s lives? While the ending of this story isn’t as open as some of the others in the collection, I still found it satisfying without being too tidy, perhaps especially because I know there’s more to come. On the other hand, ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’ and ‘Gender Studies’ both pull off loose, unresolved conclusions, and are the better for it.

This was less so for some of the other stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It. Two stories have twists in the middle – ‘Plausible Deniability’ and ‘The Prairie Wife’ – and in both cases, I guessed the twist almost immediately. This didn’t necessarily ruin the stories, but I found both of them less satisfying than I would have done otherwise. Two stories on motherhood, ‘Bad Latch’ and ‘Off the Record’, are refreshing for different reasons – ‘Bad Latch’ resists the temptation to set mothers, and different styles of parenting, up against each other, while ‘Off the Record’ is a rare glimpse into the pleasures as well as the hardships of being a single mother – but both are tied off too tightly to be especially thought-provoking.

Apart from ‘The Nominee’, the two stories that seemed to me to have the most depth and promise were ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’ [‘the voice of one crying out in the desert’] and ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’. The first deals with three college friends whose lives become linked together in unexpected ways; the second with the micro-politics of a group of volunteers running a children’s group at a shelter for women who’ve experienced domestic abuse. ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’ reminded me a little of Prep – and indeed is partly set at a prestigious prep school – while ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’ took me back to my own experiences of working and volunteering with children, although the vast majority of the other staff and volunteers in my organisation were wonderful, and things certainly never turned as nasty as they do here. I did wonder why Frances, the narrator of ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’, had OCD – it seemed to have been introduced to create some artificial conflict, and I thought Sittenfeld could have told essentially the same story without this prop. However, it was one of the stories in the collection that niggled at me most insistently, and hence became the most memorable.

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Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City, which is narrated by five different characters living on a north London housing estate, has already received a fair amount of advance praise. Gunaratne interweaves three stories of protest, violence, terrorism and the rejection of terrorism over the course of two generations. Elderly West Indian immigrant Nelson remembers his teenage involvement in the black community’s protests against the fascism personified by Oswald Mosley. Irish Catholic Caroline recalls how her family became both victims and perpetrators of the sectarian violence in Ireland during the Troubles. Meanwhile, the book’s three teenage narrators, Caroline’s son Ardan, Nelson’s son Selvon, and Yusuf, a Muslim whose family are originally from Pakistan, demonstrate solidarity across racial lines while they court trouble of their own.

In Our Mad and Furious City is partly a victim of its own ambition. Its structure is over-complicated: five voices, three parts, each divided into sub-parts, with two narrators – Nelson and Caroline – that switch between the far past and the present – it took me almost half the novel simply to work out the allegiances and interconnections I’ve summarised above. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I frequently mixed up Ardan, Selvon and Yusuf’s narratives, all characterised by the same repetition of street slang (‘ennet’, ‘fam’, ‘blood’), although, to be fair to Gunaratne, he does draw out differences between his characters’ voices as well (Selvon’s fond of saying ‘kiss my teeth’; Ardan is noticeably less confident; Yusuf uses more sophisticated sentence structure.) For this reason, I found the voices of the older generation more compelling and distinctive.   Gunaratne also hammers too hard on the ‘dangerous volatile seething tinderbox’ language that I’ve seen a number of other writers use when writing about this side of London, especially in the largely unnecessary prologue and epilogue. The novel tells us too much about what it already effectively shows, reminding me strongly of Sunil Yapa’s similarly good but flawed debut Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size of A Fist.

But at the heart of In Our Mad And Furious City, away from the noise and the familiar story beats, are quieter scenes that will repay re-reading and re-inhabiting. Timid Ardan comes into his own for one glorious moment when he beats another boy in an improvisational grime music battle while they ride on the top deck of a bus. Swaggering Seldon carefully mixes salve for his father’s swollen and painful feet and cleans them carefully with a cloth, a weekly ritual. Caroline remembers her own youth in Ireland, and the moment she realised that some members of her family were involved in the IRA. Nelson thinks back to his own teenage years, proud to be part of a resistance movement but increasingly fearful for his own personal safety, as he hears the beats of his community’s music antagonising their racist opponents. I wished that Gunaratne, obviously such a talented writer, had spent more time with his characters in moments like this, and less time telling us how everything is about to erupt.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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I’ve also recently read Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, which I loved, and which deserves a full review of its own, and relished three re-reads: Sarah Hall’s magnificent The Carhullan Army, Naomi Alderman’s thought-provoking, if uneven, The Lessons and Sarah Waters’s  lesbian classic, Fingersmith. I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, an incredibly well-written but frustratingly clinical zombie apocalypse novel, and Xiaolu Guo’s mesmerising memoir, Once Upon A Time in the East, which was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Rathbones Folio Prize. After being disappointed by her novels, especially I Am China, I’m finding this riveting.

What spring reading have you been doing?

 

The Reread Project, 2018

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Two years ago, I declared my intention to re-read classic books I’d hated as a child or teenager and see if I’d changed my mind. Unfortunately, this project didn’t get very far at the time: I only re-read one book, Harper Lee’s To Kill A MockingbirdTherefore, I’m going to try again in 2018, starting with these five titles:

  1. Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  2. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
  3. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  4. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
  5. David Almond, Skellig

It’s interesting to note that two of these titles (Walker and Hardy) were books that I studied for English Literature A Level, and another two (Bronte and Atwood) were books that were often set for A Level at the time I was studying, and hence books that I felt I ought to have read. Similarly, Almond, which I read at a much younger age, was forced upon me because it had won the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and the Carnegie Medal for 1998. It is now considered a children’s classic.

Did you love or hate any of these books as a child or teenager? Have you re-read them since?

 

The space between breaths

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A warning: Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming is another of 2018’s promised mermaid novels that’s a little short on actual mermaids. However, it’s long on atmosphere, imagination, and a charming lesbian love story. Islay, Mara and Barra have grown up on a tiny Scottish island, after their parents, Signe and Peter, brought them there when the two eldest girls were very small. Signe and Peter have compelling backstories of their own; Signe was once a professional ballet dancer, reaching the pinnacle of her career in Swan Lake, while Peter fought as a lightweight boxer. Logan emphasises the physicality and brutality of both these vocations: we might be unsurprised by the depiction of Peter’s damaging fights, but we also read about the physical toll of Signe’s work: ‘On the first day of rehearsals, Signe’s feet were a size 51/2. After a few weeks they were down to a size 5… She taped her toes before every show, but it wasn’t enough. The skin on the knuckles of her toes was all sliced off, and she danced too often for it to heal. Most nights she bled right through her pointe shoes.’ Signe’s suffering recalls the original Hans Christian Anderson story ‘The Little Mermaid’, where the little mermaid can only gain human legs through feeling as if she’s walking on knives.

Logan’s first novel, The Gracekeepersdemonstrated that she’s one of the few contemporary writers who understands how to handle folktale, and this talent is on full display in The Gloaming. Whether she’s weaving familiar folktales about selkies and mermaids into the narrative, or writing her own myths about concubines in towers, Logan gets what makes folktales work, and isn’t tempted to distort them. However, she also tells a slight but absorbing plot about the love story between Mara and Pearl, a mixed-race girl who comes to the island and keeps an old bus filled with books. Mara and Pearl leave the island together to perform as mermaids on cruise ships and in other glamorous settings, capitalising on their talent for holding their breath. But they are ultimately pulled back to it when they realise that, like many other islanders, Peter and Signe are gradually turning to stone.

The Gloaming felt more widely resonant to me than The Gracekeepers because it is even less rooted in a particular world – whether that’s the real world or a speculative, parallel version. The island feels figurative in a way that’s difficult to pin down. Is it, as Islay speculates, a place that people go to die, a kind of halfway house between life and death, in the same way as the gloaming is halfway between night and day? Or is it actually the only solid place, which explains why Islay, Mara and Pearl’s adventures in the world outside are deliberately sketchy and unformed? “Things off the island – they’re not real,” Mara tells Pearl. ‘All those hours under the water with Pearl,’ she thinks. ‘Their bright wigs and their shimmering tails… But Mara knew now that they’d stayed under the water too long… “It’s just too hard. It’s too much. I don’t want to drown.”‘ Mara and Pearl seem to have lived out the bulk of their relationship in the space between one breath and another, and are now coming back to earth.

The slipperiness of the world-building in both Logan’s novels is simultaneously a strength and their weakness. At times, I wished that she would take firmer hold of this world and expand on its possibilities, think about why certain islanders are turned to stone, and if there really are selkies in the sea surrounding Mara’s island. In short, I wonder what would happen if she made her fiction more firmly speculative, rather than staying in folktale territory. I liked some of her short stories in The Rental Heart precisely because they had to have neater edges. But on the other hand, I can see that The Gloaming works partly because there are no clear rules. It’s an eerie and magical book, even if I’d love to see Logan dive off in a new direction for her next. As for the actual mermaids of 2018: we might have to wait for Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks to meet them.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. 

Wellcome Book Prize Shadow Panel: The Winner!

And the winner of the Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel is…

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See Rebecca’s full post on the decision here.

The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize will be announced  on Monday 30th April.

My predictions, with links to my shortlist reviews: I’m concerned that With the End In Mind, my least favourite on the shortlist, and a book that worried me in a number of ways, has a strong chance of taking it. But I still think To Be A Machine must be a contender, as must Lindsey Fitzharris’s wonderful medical biography of Joseph Lister, The Butchering Art.

I’d be surprised to see either Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine RaceSigrid Rausing’s Mayhem or Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s Stay With Me take the prize, though this is not necessarily a judgment on the quality of any of those books. The Vaccine Race is perhaps too densely scientific for the average reader, though I enjoyed dredging up my A Level Biology to get through it, Stay With Me, a novel I liked very much, does not seem to me to put medical themes at its centre, and Mayhem’s fragmentary telling and huge gaps are likely to divide readers.

What are your thoughts on the most likely winner of the Wellcome Book Prize 2018?

Update 1/5/18: I was thrilled to hear that To Be A Machine has been pronounced the winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, and intrigued that both the shadow panel and the actual judges chose the same book. Having now read virtually the whole longlist, bar Behave and The White Book, I think that I’d still have selected O’Connell as the winner, though he’d have had stiff competition from Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, which would definitely have made it onto my imaginary shortlist. Looking forward to seeing what happens with the Wellcome Book Prize next year!

You can read Rebecca’s report of the awards ceremony here.

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour: Mayhem

 

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I’m excited to be taking part in the Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour today, featuring an extract from Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem. This deliberately fragmentary, thought-provoking and intelligently observed memoir is best summarised in Rausing’s own words:

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This is a story about witnessing addiction. In some ways it’s an ordinary story: two people, Hans and Eva, my brother and his wife, met in recovery, fell in love, got married, had children, then relapsed. He survived; she did not. Addiction stories are the same the world over – the individuality of addicts is curiously erased by the predictable progress of the disease and of recovery. In our case, what made the story different was partly the fact that it became so public. Witnessing the apparently voluntary physical and mental decline of people you love is inexpressibly painful. In that context, whether the story is public or not doesn’t matter: the sadness and anxiety are so overwhelming that headlines are irrelevant. But you don’t want the media to own the story of your life. That might be a good enough reason to write a book. But I had also always assumed that when dramatic events occur, there would be a narrative, followed by a conclusion, to be filed in the family archive. The story would be told, probably by lawyers; facts would be revealed, and future generations of the family would know what happened. But it turned out that no one was collating the facts. There was no timeline and no coherent family narrative. And yet Hans and Eva’s addiction was the worst thing that had ever happened to us. It dragged us to the underworld of mute slow- motion grief, the realm of sudden breakdowns and uncanny delusions. It brought us rounds of disturbing disputes; time- consuming and complex exchanges of emails; endless reports and conversations; engagements with psychiatrists, therapists and addiction experts of every kind. It made me think deeply about the nature of family and the limits of our responsibility for one another; who we were, and who we had become. Hans and Eva got married in 1992. It was the culmination of years of recovery. They had gone to 12- step meetings; they had sponsors, they may even have sponsored others, and they gave money to addiction charities. By 1999, they had three children. Then, eight years after they got married, they had a catastrophic relapse. It lasted for twelve years. I was thirty- eight when it began; fiifty when it ended. I want to understand how it all began, long before the relapse. But who knows how, or why; what prehistory of emotions, or predestination of genes, leads people into addiction. I know some things. In the early 1980s, Hans, aged eighteen or nineteen, travelled with friends by train through the Soviet Union, China and India. In Goa they met some young Italian women staying on the beach: that was his introduction to heroin. Eva was an expat American, born in Hong Kong, raised in England. She became a drug addict when she was even younger than Hans. There were many rehabs along the way. In the late 1980s they happened to go to the same place. At this point they hadn’t met. Eva was further on in her recovery and had already left when she was asked by the rehab to persuade Hans to stay on – he was close to walking out, back into drugs. She had a knack, it seemed, of helping fellow addicts, and she did talk him into staying. They became friends. Sometime later – they were more than friends now – Hans took Eva down to my parents’ house in the country to meet the family. I remember her well, at that first meeting. She was leaning against the back of the library sofa in a pink Chanel suit; blond, thin, and a little guarded. She looked simultaneously young and old, conventional and wild, groomed and unkempt. She had grown up in London, but she seemed more American than English to me. Her mother was from North Carolina; her father had come to America from Europe quite young. My mother knew them; they had attended the same Families Anonymous group in Chelsea.

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My full Goodreads review of Mayhem can be found here.

Don’t miss the other stops on the blog tour this week, especially Rebecca’s review of Mayhem today.

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Finally, there are two public events happening in London at the end of the week, culminating in the announcement of the winner of the Wellcome Book Prize on Monday 30th April:

  • Wellcome Book Prize: Authors in Conversation, Saturday 28th April, 3-4.30pm, Wellcome Collection. Five of the six shortlisted authors will be discussing their perspectives on how medicine can touch our lives.
  • Wellcome Book Prize: 5×15, Sunday 29th April, 3-4.30pm, Cecil Sharp House. The same five shortlisted authors will be given 15 minutes each to present their work.

I’ll be attending, and live-tweeting from, the Sunday event, and am very much looking forward to it!

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: The Butchering Art

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My interest in medical history was sparked at the age of fourteen when I started studying Medicine Through Time for GCSE history (favourite school history module ever), where we romped through at least two thousand years of medical history in the course of relatively few lessons. Somewhere along the way, we learnt that Joseph Lister popularised antiseptics in medical treatment in Britain, leading to a dramatic reduction in deaths from post-operative infection, but that was about all. This book is a great, entertaining and immensely readable summary of how Lister came to accept Louis Pasteur’s controversial germ theory and how he put Pasteur’s findings into practice in hospitals across Britain, following in the footsteps of other pioneers of surgical hygiene such as Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician who was eventually hounded out of his job for insisting on thorough hand washing, and died in a mental asylum.

I was a little concerned about the potential goriness of this book, but was relieved to find it less explicit than I had expected. While Fitzharris doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the excruciating detail of nineteenth-century surgery without antiseptic, and the horrors of infection in dirty and overcrowded wards, the book never feels gratuitous or titillating, and some of the very worst incidents are described as briefly as possible. Nevertheless, we are transported vividly to an utterly unfamiliar world, feeding my belief that the gulf between the early and late nineteenth century is in fact wider than the gulf between the late nineteenth and late twentieth. Life is so cheap in this period and the slightest wound can spell the end, as a number of unlucky surgeons find out for themselves.

Fitzharris is especially good at swiftly contextualising the world in which Lister lived and worked for readers who may not be especially familiar with nineteenth-century history. I currently lecture on the social and economic history of Victorian Britain, but still appreciated the way in which Fitzharris’s book filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge of the history of the medical establishment, and surgery as a discipline, during this period. It’s easy for me to feel a bit impatient with popular histories of periods or subjects that I know well, but Fitzharris strikes exactly the right note, writing clearly and accessibly with no dumbing down.

This book thoroughly deserves its place on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, and I would recommend it to historians and non-historians alike.

See also Rebecca’s review, Paul’s review and Annabel’s review.