Further Wellcome Book Prize Longlist Thoughts, 1

Since joining the Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel and writing up my thoughts on the longlist, I’ve read two more of the longlisted titles, Allan Jenkins’s Plot 29 and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind. Both of these books engaged my emotions, but in very different ways.


Grief, isolation and pain

As I wrote in my original post, I first encountered Allan Jenkins’s Plot 29 when he spoke at a joint event with Alys Fowler, who was discussing her memoir Hidden NatureJenkins’s quietly devastating memoir retraces a fragmented childhood spent in and out of care, with one of his few constants being his older brother Christopher, whom he feels that he failed. The book is organised into month-long sections over the course of about a year and a half, so Jenkins’s memories of his past are interspersed with what’s happening each month in the present day, both in his beloved allotment and in his search both for the paper trail that records his half-forgotten childhood and DNA evidence that might link him to a biological family. The structure becomes even more complicated when we realise that Jenkins is deliberately only including memories that roughly fit into the time of year he’s writing about, although he has some leeway with this, given that the book spans more than one chronological year.

When Jenkins spoke about the writing of this book, he said that he had actually written each section in the month that it concerns, and although I didn’t find Plot 29 confusing, I did wonder if he’d perhaps placed unnecessary restrictions on himself. Fowler’s Hidden Nature has a similarly fragmented structure, but because her rules are less rigid, I felt that there was more direct resonance between her explorations of Birmingham’s canal network and the personal material of her story than Jenkins managed in Plot 29. Still, Plot 29 is a powerful exploration of the consequences of child neglect and abandonment. (Jenkins is not sure whether or not he was abused as a child, and the book is distinguished by the way that it emphasises that this doesn’t really matter – the simple disregard and disinterest he suffered was bad enough.) I don’t think that it belongs on the Wellcome shortlist, but this is not a criticism of the book itself – I just felt that the medical theme in the book was very slight. While Jenkins spends some time in therapy, the book is not really about mental health but about persistent guilt, enforced gratitude and an ever-expanding, ever-contracting sense of family.


Anger and fear

Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial is written from her own experiences as a specialist in palliative care, and this proved, for me, both its strength and its downfall. The book is structured around a series of fictionalised case studies drawn from Mannix’s own experiences, many of which are deeply affecting. I was particularly touched by the stories of Sally, a young woman dying from melanoma who refused to accept that her condition was terminal, and Holly, a mum of two teenagers dying from cancer of the cervix, who suffered from a last bout of restless energy before passing away. Mannix writes particularly well on the characteristic patterns of somebody who is entering a gradual decline. As the hospice leader she’s working with on Holly’s case describes it to Holly’s daughters: ‘Have you noticed that she stops breathing from time to time? That tells me that she is unconscious, very deeply relaxed… That is what the very end of life is like. Just very quiet and peaceful. I don’t expect she will wake up again now.’

I find books of this kind difficult to review because the risk of sounding like you’re passing a (totally unqualified) judgment on the writer’s professional career. But ultimately I have to judge With the End in Mind as a book that Mannix has written, separating it from Mannix’s personal achievements, and in this context, it fell very short. It’s crucial to feel that you trust and respect the voice that is telling you such sensitive stories, but With the End in Mind left me feeling frustrated, angry and suspicious. This was for a number of interconnected reasons:

  • Unlike similar medical writers – Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Better and Complications come to mind – I felt that Mannix was keeping her professional distance, positioning the reader as her patient. Each section ends with a ‘Pause for Thought’ that I found simplistic and patronising, and unlike Marsh and Gawande, she writes virtually nothing at all about her own professional mistakes, although she says a little about other people’s. In every story, she positions either herself or her palliative care colleagues as the all-knowing voice of reason, and after a while, this started to feel a bit sinister.
  • This was compounded by her discussion of euthanasia, a subject that is obviously very relevant in this context. While I am broadly pro-euthanasia, I wouldn’t have minded if Mannix had directly challenged my views by offering up new evidence to support her obvious concerns about euthanasia options such as those offered in the Netherlands. Instead, I found her approach incredibly disingenuous. I almost stopped reading With the End in Mind after ‘Please Release Me: B Side’ where Mannix tells a story about one man’s unpleasant experience in the Netherlands that is entirely based on hearsay, and I realised that a number of stories she had been telling in that section had been deliberately engineered to emphasise the benefits of palliative care as opposed to euthanasia. Again, I would have found this less troubling if Mannix had been upfront about it: instead, she claims that ‘many of us in palliative care roles are exasperated by the trenchant, black-and-white opinions of the campaigners for either view [on euthanasia]’ but makes her own views pretty clear when she says at the end of the chapter on the Netherlands that ‘Once the euthanasia genie is out of the bottle, you must be careful what you wish for’, echoing familiar ‘slippery slope’ arguments. All of this made me very uneasy and uncomfortable.
  • Finally, Mannix uses the metaphor of ‘natural birth’ throughout the book to promote her vision of a ‘natural death’. She writes that ‘both processes can proceed safely without intervention, as any wise midwife knows.’ This infuriated me because of the damage, pain and suffering the language of ‘natural birth’ and the doctrine of little medical intervention has caused to women and their babies. Indeed, the Royal College of Midwives recently dropped campaigns for what they called ‘normal birth’ in recognition of this fact, although women are still denied the right to choose interventions like caesarians (in contravention of NICE guidelines on childbirth) as a consequence of this ideology. As the language of ‘natural birth’ is unfortunately quite common, I wouldn’t see this as a significant problem for Mannix if she didn’t repeatedly return to this metaphor across the course of her book. This, along with the problems I’ve noted above, left me doubting everything she said about birth and about death.

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

What’s next for my Wellcome Book Prize reading? I’m hoping to get to either Han Kang’s The White Book or Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race before the shortlist is announced on March 20th.


Young women writing on young women

Recently, I’ve read three deliberately cerebral books written by young women who are (mainly) writing about young women. (This is partly because I was lucky enough to win a set of the titles shortlisted for the PFD/Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award.) Some have worked for me better than others, but all of them impressed me with their ability to combine analytical intelligence and literary experimentation with the emotional engagement that’s often lacking in novels that are so overtly clever.


Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award, was a novel I steered clear of for some time because I thought it would be a more literary version of other books about millennials that I’d strongly disliked: Lauren Berry’s Living the Dream, for example, whose twenty-something female characters are defined entirely by ennui, weak sarcasm and emotional detachment. So I was pleasantly surprised by its robust treatment of both intimate relationships and chronic illness. I particularly liked its depiction of the on-off relationship and long-term friendship between our bisexual narrator, Frances, and her lesbian friend, Bobbi, and its unflinching descriptions of Frances’s struggles with an often invisible but common female illness, endometriosis.

Conversations With Friends has been much-praised for ‘capturing the zeitgeist’, but I’m not sure that it does, and given what the press often thinks the millennial zeitgeist consists of, I’m glad that it doesn’t. (This is obviously not the fault of millennials; I’m one myself!) The novel didn’t remind me of the kind of contemporary works that treat intersectionality as a series of tick-boxes and have no interest in moral questions around honesty and integrity in relationships; instead, it felt more reminiscent of some of the 1980s and 1990s novels I’ve read that followed in the wake of second-wave feminism, like Emma Donoghue’s wonderful debut Stir-FryIt captures how it feels to be asking difficult questions for the first time without distancing or patronising its narrator, and it doesn’t treat identity as a meaningless performance.


This is a little less true of Women, Chloe Caldwell’s novella about a young(ish) woman – she’s almost ten years older than Frances from Conversations with Friends – who embarks on her first same-sex relationship after moving to a new city and meeting soft butch Finn, who is nineteen years older than her. I requested this on NetGalley after reading Elle’s excellent review, where she suggests that this is a kind of ‘tourist-lesbian novel’ that doesn’t deal adequately with the power structures that marginalise lesbians and bisexual women. In general, I completely agree; unlike Conversations with Friends, Women is happy to engage on a surface level with queer culture, the haircuts and clothing and token trans friends, the lesbian writing and films and TV shows, but rarely properly asks questions about identity, even as our narrator struggles with whether or not she should identify as a lesbian. This misses much of why lesbians are oppressed by heteronormative society, and how the trappings of queerness are not its substance.

To an extent, I sympathise with Caldwell’s task: lesbians remain so under-represented, especially in fiction, that any novel that centres on a same-sex relationship between women ends up carrying an unfair burden. The novel is also already four years old; it was first published in the US in 2014. And yet I was still disappointed to see familiar stereotypes about tempestuous, doomed lesbian relationships being repeated, and Caldwell’s stab at making this ironic falls flat: ‘I ask Finn if things are always this insane and dramatic between two women, and she says yes.’ It felt especially gratuitous to have our narrator come home near the end of the novel to find that even the older lesbian couple she grew up nearby have broken up.

However, I do disagree with one frequent criticism of the novel; that our narrator’s relationship with Finn is exploitative because she is trying on a lesbian identity for size. Both women, it seemed to me, were exploiting each other. Finn is older, savvier, and has a long-term girlfriend, while the narrator has the ability to retreat back into a safer straight identity if she wants to, though I didn’t feel that the narrator was always planning her escape; her questioning of her sexuality, such as it is, feels genuine. Nevertheless, this doesn’t address the broader issues with this slight novel, which is important because it exists but doesn’t do a great deal even within its tiny page count.

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


Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones, a collection of interconnected short stories, was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award (and was named the winner by the award’s shadow panel). Set between 1993 and 2013 in Colombia, New York and DC, Pachico’s book focuses on the disappearances of expats in Colombia in the early twenty-first century, and the activity of left-wing guerrilla groups and drug smugglers participating in and targeting these communities. The stories don’t proceed chronologically and are all told in different voices and viewpoints, ranging from a conversation with an invisible person to a stoned group of rabbits. They’re loosely linked, however, by one school class and their teacher, who end up scattered over the world.

The Lucky Ones has already been reviewed so beautifully by the participants of the shadow panel (see Annabel’s review here; Elle’s review here; Rebecca’s review here; Dane’s review here; Clare’s review here) that I don’t feel I have a great deal to add. However, what did strike me about Pachico’s book is how well she deals with the intersection between our imaginations and reality. She’s said that she doesn’t think of her book as magical realism, and I’d agree – given my struggles with magic realist novels – that the label is inappropriate, slapped on The Lucky Ones because most of it takes place in a Latin American country. Instead, Pachico perfectly conveys the ways our minds work when disconnected under strain. My favourite story, ‘Lemon Pie’, features the former class teacher, now imprisoned in the jungle, setting up a school for a series of twigs and leaves which he personifies as the pupils he once knew. It swings back and forward, so at times we can see the forest debris, but at other times we see, as he does, living boys and girls. This is not symbolism but an exactly-right rendition of how we make things up. (You could write about a child’s imaginative game in similar terms). Pachico is an incredible writer, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

‘There wasn’t going to be any time for whatever’


This post will contain significant spoilers for Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil.

Speak No Evil, Uzodinma Iweala’s second novel, following thirteen years after his debut Beasts of No Nation, seems at first glance to tread very familiar ground. Alex Preston, writing in the Guardianfound it ‘tentative, less polished, more, in short, like a first novel’ (although what does that mean?). The synopsis may be enough to put some readers off. Niru, the youngest son of Nigerian parents, has grown up in Washington DC, quietly trying to fit in at a predominantly white school while excelling both intellectually and athletically. When he realises he’s gay, his world is turned upside down, especially when his devout father ships him temporarily back to Nigeria for religiously-minded conversion therapy. However, Niru can’t resist nudging at the boundaries of his narrow world, as Iweala captures perfectly in a scene set at a high school track meet: ‘I’m tired of running in circles while thinking that I’m making progress. And yet it is progress. I can see the seconds and milliseconds shed from my time. I cross the finish line before everyone else, accept their smiles and high fives and fist bumps and then line up to do it all again because that’s what I’m supposed to do. I don’t want that life.’ Told by Reverend Olumide, the local churchman who has been overseeing his ‘recovery’, that he should ‘do the things that young men do’, Niru starts drinking heavily at parties for the first time. Leaving one of these parties, he argues with his best friend Meredith, a white woman. A police car turns up when Niru is holding her against a wall, and he is shot dead.

Speak No Evil, then, depicts both the kind of black pain and queer pain that some may feel has been written about enough already, as well as focusing on a typical conservative religious response to homosexuality. And yet I felt that it justified its subject-matter. Part of the reason for this is the simple brilliance of Iweala’s writing. Speak No Evil reads like the best kind of YA – energetic, immediate, funny – while, at the same time, adopting an experimental literary style that effortlessly blends dialogue and interior monologue in a way that can occasionally be jolting but is usually exhilarating. Both these strands are in play as Niru nervously heads off to meet a Tinder date that Meredith has arranged for him near the beginning of the novel:

‘Ryan’s avatar texted me the next day: we can have coffee and then whatever… Coffee I understood, but the whatever rattled around my head. The word sounded so much like the “whatever” Reverend Olumide railed against from the pulpit on Sundays. You have kids saying whatever, doing whatever, whatever whatever. And then they have boyfriends or babies… Ryan’s text beneath his smiling face flickered before me, coffee and whatever. I’m actually going to do this… And why not? It was just a quick meetup, coffee after practice and then home. There wasn’t going to be any time for whatever.’

Speak No Evil has a simple plot, but its emotions are utterly convincing. By the time Niru was killed, I desperately wanted him to go off to college and have all the boyfriends he could find; Iweala perfectly encapsulates the Greek-tragic inevitability of what actually happens, as Niru realises too late that a society that has all the time in the world for white adolescent mistakes has no room for a single one of his.

All this is to say that I don’t agree with the Guardian reviewer: I think this is the best novel I’ve read so far this year. But this isn’t to say that it’s perfect. For me, Iweala’s major  misstep was to have the last third of the book, after Niru’s death, narrated by his friend Meredith. As it transpires, Meredith has been convinced by her parents not to tell the truth about what actually happened just before Niru was shot, and to go along with the official police story that Niru was sexually assaulting her. The rest of the novel sees her struggling with that decision until she finally decides to tell the truth. As this unfolds, we learn that Meredith had kept Niru at arms length for so long because she was unable to deal with his romantic rejection of her, even though she knew he was gay. For me, all of this added up to too much page-time for a straight white character whose voice is already dominant in this kind of story, and who plays into tropes of white female fragility to protect herself. I wondered if this final third might not have been better told in the voice of Niru’s father, who must surely have been suffering a crisis of the soul after pushing his son away so soon before his death, and whose narrative eventually intersects with Meredith’s. I didn’t feel that I needed the glimpse inside her head to know what she was thinking; it was all too evident from what had gone before. Nevertheless, Iweala writes incredible prose, and I’ll certainly be seeking out his debut.

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

Brief Thoughts on The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2018


The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2018 is out! To my surprise, I’ve already read half of the sixteen longlisted titles. Here’s what I thought of the ones I’ve read, with links to my reviews where they exist.

I loved Kamila Shamsie’s Home FireJesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, SingFiona Mozley’s Elmet and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock(I especially love that Gowar only realised that she was eligible yesterday, and Shamsie got the news while in midair). I’d be very happy to see any of these novels win the whole thing.

I enjoyed reading Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach – its scenes of diving in the New York harbour during the Second World War are especially strong – but it’s uneven compared to Egan’s earlier work, and I’d be surprised if it was shortlisted. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot was just too much of a good thing for me, though I’m pleased to see it longlisted, especially as it seems to have received little attention.

Unfortunately, Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine were probably two of the titles I most strongly disliked last year, and I was praying for the latter, in particular, not to be included on the longlist. (I found Schmidt’s writing style deliberately repulsive, but the fact it evoked such a strong reaction in me probably means there’s something to be said for it).


Of the longlisted titles I haven’t read, I was already planning to read Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, and Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time. The one title I hadn’t heard of was Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma, but it looks pretty intriguing.

I’m less interested in Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, having struggled with both Burley Cross Postbox Theft and Darkmans, but I do feel she’s a writer I ought to appreciate. The lukewarm reviews of Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have put me off it somewhat, and I’m worried that Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie will be too sweet for me, though in fairness I’ve never read anything by her. Finally, Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter is off-putting to me simply because it deals with the Third Reich, although I have been surprised before by how authors can re-invent this very familiar material.

What’s missing? Like Hermes Gowar, I can never remember what’s eligible! I was surprised not to see Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan after rave reviews from bloggers, and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends after its winning the Young Writer of the Year Award. Ali Smith’s Winter was strongly tipped but I’m finding Smith’s novels increasingly repetitive (having been a big fan for many years) and am not really bothered not to see it there. Overall, despite the two titles I couldn’t stand, I’m impressed by the strength of the longlist, and the number of interesting titles to investigate.

What are other people’s thoughts on the 2018 longlist?

‘We cannot make our sun stand still’


Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists starts in New York in 1968 with four Jewish siblings – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon Gold – hurrying off to visit a fortune-teller who promises that she can tell them when they are going to die. However, having been issued with precise dates for their deaths, the siblings quickly realise that it might have been better not to ask. As the four part ways to pursue their own futures, they deal with this unwanted knowledge in their own ways. Having realised he’s gay, Simon runs away to San Francisco as a teenager to live his life before it’s too late. Klara trains as a magician and promises to defy her own death by performing as ‘The Immortalist’, but gradually starts to realise that she wants to believe in magic. Daniel thinks the prophecy is rubbish, and that the fortune-teller is a dangerous fraudster. Meanwhile, Varya, having put her own life on hold for a long time, finally starts to pursue a career as a scientist, working on the development of a drug that might lengthen human lifespan.

The Immortalists doesn’t want to buy into its own premise. It positions itself as a literary novel about how we can make the best use of the time we have, given that we all must die; putting forward the idea that living fast, dying young, might actually be a swifter route to feeling immortal than living to the greatest age you can possibly attain. It reminded me of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’: ‘Though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run’. This slippery relationship with time is just one of the themes that the novel leaves under-explored. Sibling relationships are another missed opportunity: we only see the four siblings together in the opening chapter of the novel, and although some of them encounter each other during the four sections that follow, I never really got a strong sense of how they felt about each other, except Simon and Klara. As much of the thematic weight of the second half of the book rests on their original closeness, Benjamin could have stood to spend more time with them at the beginning.

Finally, I felt the novel could have done much more with its central idea. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the fortune-teller was right: as far as we know, the Gold siblings all die on the dates that she predicted. Frankly, there’s no explanation for this other than magic. The novel tries to postulate other hypotheses, such as self-will and unconscious influence, but ultimately none of this could possibly lead to such a tidy outcome. I think it would have been better to take the premise and run with it: what would it do to us if we knew for certain when we were going to die?

And yet, despite these flaws, The Immortalists still has something to it. Simon’s arc is pretty cliched – a young gay man caught up in the 1980s AIDS epidemic – but Benjamin evokes the absolute horror of those early days so vividly that she remakes the material as her own. ‘Richie wakes up with a red dot on the white of his left eye… The doctor sends him home with an antibiotic… by the twentieth of December, Richie is dead. How to describe the shock? The splotches appear on the flower seller in Dolores Park and on the beautiful feet of Beau, who once spun eight times without stopping and is now taken to San Francisco General in Eduardo’s car, seizing.’ Similarly, Klara’s story rehashes a number of tropes about the power of stage magic – but her belief that she actually can do impossible things makes this much more memorable. Varya comes the closest to actually grappling with the premise of the novel. Having been told that she’ll die at eighty-eight, she spends much of her life in the grips of OCD, trying to plan for everything that might go wrong. Her siblings, given earlier death dates, are inclined to live rather than spend all their time trying to stave off mortality. Only Daniel’s story left me with little to think about. I don’t think that Benjamin got the balance between magic and reality quite right here, but she writes well enough that, at times, that didn’t matter.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 8th March.

Genre fiction round-up, February 2018

A bit about some of the genre fiction I’ve been reading recently!



Holly Cave’s thriller The Memory Chamber has a premise that’s strongly reminiscent of the TV show Black Mirror. Isobel is a Heaven Architect, identifying her clients’ most beloved memories and using them to create an artificial Heaven which they can occupy indefinitely after their death. In Heavens, you don’t feel the passage of time, so are unable to tire of the relatively limited pool of memories that Isobel selects, and so can spend forever in the happiest moments of your life. However, there’s a catch: you can only include other people in your Heaven if they explicitly ‘opt-in’. Isobel passionately defends this rule, emphasising that others have a right to privacy, and this could open the door to people’s images and personalities being exploited by their abusers, for example. But her smaller UK-based company is coming under pressure from Valhalla, the US supplier of Heavens, to challenge this in the courts. At the same time, Isobel finds herself dealing with an emotional crisis: she’s falling in love with one of her clients, Jarek, a married man dying from a brain tumour. Jarek says he no longer loves his wife and doesn’t want her in his Heaven; will he end up including Isobel instead?

The Memory Chamber is cleverly and thoughtfully written. This premise could be treated simplistically (Heavens = bad, real life = good), but Cave is aware of both the pitfalls and benefits of her invented technology. (This also highlighted the book’s connections with Black Mirror for me; contrary to popular opinion, Black Mirror is not about how technology is bad and will kill us but how people misuse and exploit technology.) The plot takes some relatively unexpected twists, and I found it genuinely gripping. Cave is also very good at hinting at the wider world in which The Memory Chamber takes place without becoming vague or unbelievable. In terms of genre, this book is definitely a psychological thriller with a speculative twist, and so detailed futuristic world-building would be out of place, but Cave suggests both geopolitical shifts (a new Cold War with China) and day-to-day change (no more honey; driverless cars; iris chips) without labouring the point. She also gets at the poignancy of the past, the way in which Heavens are both beautiful and terrible at the same time. And the cover design is creepily ingenious.


I’ve been reading Harriet Evans’s novels since her 2005 debut, Going Home, and I’m a particular fan of the turn she’s taken in her last two books, A Place for Us and The Butterfly Summer, moving away from ‘chick lit’ towards modern family sagas. I always enjoy a good chick lit, but there’s something in Evans’s writing, and in her interest in home, place and family dynamics, that seems to work especially well telling these kinds of stories, and I’ve found them all really absorbing. The Wildflowers is no exception, and I think it might be her best yet. It focuses at first on a single family in the 1970s and 1980s: Althea and Tony Wilde and their two children, Cordelia and Ben, known as ‘The Wildflowers’ by the locals who live near the ‘Bosky’, the old family house in Worth Bay. The book looks forward into the future, letting us know early on that this family has become fractured, even as all its members pursue their own creative careers; Althea and Tony as actors, Cordelia as a singer and Ben as a film director. But the book also reaches back into Tony’s past; orphaned during the Second World War, he’s taken in by his eccentric archaeologist great-aunt, Dinah. Finally, we see the family through the eyes of Mads, a neglected and abused child who grows up near Cordelia and Ben, and longs to be a part of their games.

All of the cast of The Wildflowers are completely convincing, but I was especially won over by Cordelia and Dinah. Cordelia is vividly flawed, defending her own sense of right and wrong to the death, and yet, in terms of her own personal conduct, ends up doing the least damage. Dinah is still mysterious even by the end of the novel, making us share Tony’s desire to know more about her, and what her life was like before and after she ended up taking care of him. Althea is also nicely done; she could easily have become a stereotypical martyr, but Evans gives her a life of her own, as she does with Mads, who manages to escape some of the most familiar ‘outsider’ tropes. If there is a flaw in this novel, it’s that there was a bit too much Tony for my taste. I felt at times that we were being nudged to sympathise with him, and although I didn’t feel completely unsympathetic towards him, I wasn’t sure about the way the narrative seemed to be weighted on his side. I found the sections from his point of view in the 1940s difficult to get through, and thought they could have been cut down – especially as I was so gripped by the sections set in later time periods.

The Wildflowers perfectly evokes the golden past of one particular family and what happened to pull it apart – and questions whether this idyll ever really existed. Top-notch storytelling.

I received a free copy of The Wildflowers for review from the publisher.


Finally, I’ve been enjoying Adele Geras’s Egerton Hall series, first published in 1992, and first read by me as a teenager in the early 2000s. This YA trilogy consists of The Tower Room, Watching the Roses and Pictures of the Night, and focuses on three friends, Megan, Alice and Bella, who have grown up at boarding school together. Each of the novels is a loose retelling of a fairy tale, but Geras is smart enough not to be tied too tightly by her source material, so the books are long on atmosphere and short on artificial constraints. Despite the brevity of each novel – the longest is only 150 pages – Geras manages to completely inhabit the girls’ secluded world. I think they’re wonderful, and was sad to see their poor ratings on Goodreads from YA readers who have come across them more recently. To me, this is what romantic, fairy-tale-retelling YA should be – capturing the magic and excitement of first love while still keeping an eye on gendered power imbalances. This is explored especially well in The Tower Room, a retelling of Rapunzel, where Megan’s liberation is marked not by her initial escape from school with a lover but by her return to sit her exams and stake her claim to a life that doesn’t revolve around him. Geras’s other books for children and young people are also worth seeking out.

The Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2018

Longlist stack copy_2

The Wellcome Book Prize, along with the Woman’s Prize for Fiction, consistently produces my favourite literary longlists and shortlists. As an historian of developmental psychology and psycho-analysis (among other things) and somebody with a strong amateur interest in medicine and healthcare, I always find that this prize, which highlights ‘the best new novels, memoirs and non-fiction that illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness’, brings me lots of new books to love. That’s why I’m so delighted to be part of a shadow panel for this year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist organised by Rebecca, alongside Clare, Paul and Annabel. Although the shortlist won’t be announced until the 20th March, I’m looking forward to digging into the longlisted books  I haven’t already read.

Medical fictions


I read Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me when it was shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Prize, and ended up ranking it third out of the six shortlisted novels. It’s a tremendously moving account of the life of a single Nigerian woman, Yejide, spanning almost thirty years from the military coups of the 1980s to the relatively more peaceful territory of 2008. I’d expected it to be a little cliched, but was surprised by how heartbreaking I found it. My only quibble with regards to the Wellcome Book Prize is that, although the story ostensibly deals with fertility, I wouldn’t call it a book that primarily engages with medical themes.

Bernard Laverty’s Midwinter Break, which deals with a long-married couple taking a break in Amsterdam, caught my eye in Waterstones when it was Book of the Week. While I’m keen to read it, again, I wouldn’t have pigeonholed it as a book that deals with health or medicine.

I was captivated by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and so her new novel, The White Book, was always going to be a must-read for me. Deborah Levy in the Guardian describes it as ‘a fragmented autobiographical meditation on the death of the unnamed narrator’s baby sister, who died two hours after her birth’.

Memoirs of living and dying


Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am was one of my top ten books of 2017, beating out stiff competition from the other Maggie O’Farrell book I read this year (This Must Be The Place). Subtitled ‘Seventeen Brushes With Death’, this memoir details all the near-death experiences of O’Farrell’s life – or at least, as she notes, those that she realised were near-death experiences. It’s beautifully-written; each section is incredible in its own right.

I heard Allan Jenkins talk about Plot 29which deals with his own childhood and that of his foster brother Christopher, at the Durham Book Festival. I was primarily there to hear the other writer he was paired with (Alys Fowler, discussing her wonderful memoir Hidden Nature) but was impressed by Jenkins’s consideration of how he’d dealt with such a sensitive subject, and the interconnections he made with a year of tending his allotment.

Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem wasn’t on my radar at all before it was longlisted, but given my relatively new interest in memoir, I’m glad to have it highlighted. It deals with the impact of  drug addiction on a single family.

Busman’s holiday


As a historian, I’m afraid I rarely read history for fun, but I’ve heard good things about Lindsay Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s quest to transform the grisly world of Victorian medicine. Apart from anything else, I’ve been interested in Storying the Past’s recent work on what academic history-writing can learn from fiction and storytelling, and so it will be good for me to see how Fitzharris addresses her work to a popular audience. I’m not hugely enamoured of the mock-Victorian sensation cover, but we shall see.

Proper science


In contrast, I love popular science, and I’m particularly excited about Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race: How scientists used human cells to combat killer viruses. It promises to tell the story of the major scientific breakthrough that led to the development of vaccines for a number of dangerous pathogens, including rubella. The novel I’m working on partly deals with the fourteenth-century Black Death, so I’m especially interested in epidemiology and epidemics at the moment (although did you know that we still don’t have a fully effective vaccine for bubonic plague?).

Robert Salpolsky’s Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst is probably the title on the list that least appeals to me personally. I’ve delved a little into the history of the study of human behaviour for work and it just doesn’t capture my imagination. This is no reflection on the quality of Salpolsky’s book, but I won’t be reading this unless it makes the shortlist.

Joseph Jebelli’s In Pursuit of Memory: The fight against Alzheimer’s mixes the personal with the medical, as Jebelli recalls the death of his grandfather from Alzheimer’s and recounts his own career as a neuroscientist working on the disease. Again, this doesn’t instantly fit with my own interests, but it certainly looks important and worthwhile.

What it is to be human


As anyone who has read my Top Ten Books of 2017 list might imagine, I’m especially absorbed by books about death and dying at the moment (and anyone who knew me as a young teenager obsessed with Lurlene McDaniel books might argue that this is an interest that has never gone away). So Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind: Dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial, which explores her experiences working in palliative medicine, looks like a worthy successor to memoirs like Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm.

Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death deals with transhumanism, a word that I keep hearing bandied about, even though I have to admit I’m not quite sure what it means. (According to the blurb: ‘Transhumanism is a movement whose aim is to use technology to fundamentally change the human condition, to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other, and better, than the animals we are.’) When I first heard about this book, I wasn’t sure it would be for me, but I’m getting more and more intrigued.

So: I’ve already read two of the longlist and want to read a few more before the shortlist is announced. To get a fair spread across the various genres I’ve identified here, I think I’m going to prioritise the Mannix, Wadman, Jenkins and Kang.

Do others have thoughts on the Wellcome longlist? Are there titles you’re especially keen to read?