Wellcome Book Prize 2019: Shortlist Events and Award Ceremony

I’m off to the Wellcome Book Prize award ceremony tonight to find out which of these books has won the prize!

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I went to the Wellcome 5×15 event with a friend yesterday evening at Wilton’s Music Hall, where five of the six shortlisted authors had fifteen minutes each to discuss their work. This was great, as always – if I lived in London, I’d try to go to some non-Wellcome-related 5×15 events, as the format really works for me. Here are some brief thoughts.

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Sarah Krasnostein: ‘Trauma cleaning for Sandra’

Krasnostein gave a very emotive talk on The Trauma Cleanerher biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who has suffered her own personal horrors and now cleans the houses of hoarders, agoraphobics and those who have died and been left undiscovered. It’s clear how much this matters to her. She described how, when she first began the research for this book, her doctor asked her ‘Who would ever want to read that?’ and how this made her more determined to show how we are all connected despite our outward differences. To emphasise this, she used the metaphor of a forest of 40,000 quaking aspens in Utah, which are all linked by the same root system even though they look like individual trunks above the surface (this really is fashionable at the moment!) Krasnostein sees her book as a kind of trauma cleaning for Sandra, doing for her subject what she has done for others. The Trauma Cleaner was our shadow panel winner, and I think it has a good chance of taking the actual prize.

Sandeep Jauhar: ‘Taking away the sudden death option’

In my favourite talk of the evening, Jauhar, a cardiologist, spoke about how his family history of malignant heart disease led him to write his popular medical book, Heart: A History. Like Krasnostein, he encountered some initial resistance to his topic: his eleven-year-old son told him ‘Don’t write a book about the heart. No-one will buy it, because the heart is boring.’ Jauhar told us how the sudden deaths of both of his grandfathers gave him a ‘fear of the heart’, which he saw as both powerful and vulnerable, and how he became obsessed with the organ as a child, adjusting the speed of the ceiling fan so it synchronised with his heartbeat. (He also discovered that if you hooked up an average adult human heart to a swimming pool, it would empty it in a week.) Overall, though, he has come to the conclusion that a swift death from heart disease can be merciful, leaving him with difficult decisions to make about whether to suggest that his patients are fitted with internal defibrillators, which ‘take away the sudden death option’.

Arnold Thomas Fanning: ‘Walking down corridors endlessly’

For those of us who have read Mind on FireFanning’s account of living with bipolar disorder, this talk perhaps had less to offer, as Fanning essentially recounted what he tells us in his memoir. However, he illustrated the talk with a series of pictures of himself from childhood to the present day, which were really interesting to see, and vividly recounted his time in a mental hospital, where he ‘walked down corridors endlessly’ because of his restless energy, and at one point was prescribed sixty different medications over a six-month period. Fanning’s emotional honesty is admirable, and it was lovely to see the delighted reaction from the audience when he announced at the end of the talk that he’s getting married the month after next.

Will Eaves: ‘Understanding the gap between your experiences and someone else’s’

I’m afraid I had many of the same problems with Eaves’s talk as I did with his novel, Murmurwhich chronicles the inner life of a fictional Alan Turing undergoing forced chemical castration after being convicted of gross indecency for having sex with another man. It swung between being profound and pretentious as he meditated on the idea that we can never really understand somebody else’s internal state, and that’s what true sympathy is, offering an interesting counterpart to Krasnostein’s tree metaphor. I was particularly frustrated by the section on time, where Eaves claimed that there is no scientific reason why an equation can’t go backwards rather than forwards;  I wrote ‘ENTROPY’ on my programme and my friend added ‘TWADDLE’. However, Eaves did give us a great potted history of Turing’s life, which will help those approaching Murmur with little knowledge of the subject.

Ottessa Moshfegh: ‘People are vulnerable in having feelings’

Moshfegh spent quite a lot of time talking about what her novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxationis (in her words) not about: namely, how easy it is to get psychiatric drugs in the US, and why that’s a problem. Psychiatrists play on this to get customers, she argued, because ‘people are vulnerable in having feelings.’ Underlining this point, she read the section from the novel where our protagonist first meets Dr Tuttle. However, she stated that, for her, My Year is actually about a woman who ‘does not want to live in this plane of consciousness’ and believes that if she sleeps long enough, all her cells will have forgotten their cellular trauma. Moshfegh presents her protagonist more sympathetically than I had expected from the way she writes about her in the novel, and the talk really made me think again about how to interpret My Year.

Updated 1/5/19: The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize is…

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I’m not surprised by this result, but I am disappointed. Murmur was my least favourite book on the shortlist and on the longlist. I found it pretentious and unreadable, and Eaves’s discussion of the book has only cemented my opinions. More broadly speaking, I felt it would have been the right moment for a book on trans issues to have taken the prize, which would have pointed to a win for either Amateur or The Trauma Cleaner. Winning this prize will probably garner Eaves a wider readership, but it seems unlikely that many readers will be engaged by Murmur.

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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A young woman, recently graduated and recently orphaned, decides to take a year off from living to emerge purified. Camping out in her expensive New York apartment, she doses herself with a vast range of drugs, from the real to the fictional, in an attempt to sleep away the next three hundred and sixty five days. During this period, her human contact is limited to her only friend, Reva, whom she openly despises, the men at the local bodega who sell her two coffees when she manages to wake up, and her terrible psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, who’s happy to prescribe her anything and everything. The narrator also muses on her earlier employment in the surreal art market of the very late twentieth century, and the kinds of productions that received acclaim, such as ejaculation drawings and pedigree dogs preserved through taxidermy.

There are a number of ways to read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Most obviously, its narrator is obscenely privileged, cushioned from ‘real life’, as is the art scene which she frequents; both are abruptly jolted awake by the intrusion of 9/11, which takes place at the very end of the novel. Secondly, My Year is both surprisingly readable and unreadably dull; its litanies of drugs and old movies recall Patrick Bateman’s recitation of brand names in American Psycho, another book that feels to me like it was deliberately written to be skimmed:

I took another Nembutal, watched Presumed Innocent, then took a few Lunestas and drank the second bottle of funeral wine, but somehow the alcohol undid the sleeping pills, and I felt even more awake than before… Then I was hungry, so I ate the banana bread and watched Frantic three times in a row, taking a few Ativan every thirty minutes or so. But I still couldn’t sleep. I watched Schindler’s List, which I hoped would depress me, but it only irritated me, and then the sun came up, so I took some Lamictal and watched The Last of the Mohicans and Patriot Games, but that had no effect either, so I took a few Placidyl and put The Player back in.

Like American Psycho, this is a satire that’s too horrific – at least in my view – to be funny. The only genuinely satirical section is the mid-point set-piece, when our narrator attends Reva’s mum’s funeral – a scene which weirdly kept reminding me of Bunny’s funeral gathering in The Secret History, even though the Secret History scene is undoubtedly much better in its lurches between comedy and tragedy.

Thirdly, one might discern a more serious side to My Year. What would happen, it asks, if we simply didn’t do anything for a year, if we were able to do that? It’s an anti-YOLO book, a deliberate rejection of the idea that life has meaning or that it shouldn’t be wasted. Because of this, my favourite section was the section near the end, when our narrator finally decides to knock herself out completely for several months, only waking for an hour every three days to see to her basic needs. This takes Moshfegh’s project to its logical conclusion, refusing to allow her narrator any wants or desires, and hence discarding all the usual things that novels are meant to be about. My Year, in this respect, is strangely liberating, because there’s absolutely nothing our narrator wants to achieve (and although she’s arrogant and self-aggrandising, she doesn’t seem to think she’s in any way perfect, so this isn’t rooted in false self-belief). Are our ambitions simply a shield against the absurdity of having such a short, and yet such a long, life to waste?

I didn’t enjoy reading My Year very much at all, but I don’t think that I was meant to. And while there were a number of books on the longlist that I thought were stronger (Sight, This Really Isn’t About You, Freshwater, Educated), it’s probably my second favourite on the Wellcome shortlist, if only because I doubt I will ever forget it.

Thoughts on My Year of Rest and Relaxation from other members of the shadow panel can be found here:

Rebecca’s review

Annabel’s review

Clare’s review

Paul’s review

Thanks to Midas PR for sending me a free copy of this novel to review for the blog tour.

The shadow panel – who are pretty divided this year! – will announce our winner on Monday 29th April, and the official winner will be announced on Wednesday 1st May.

My personal winner, by some distance, is Thomas Page McBee’s remarkable Amateur.

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!

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Finally, 5×15 are running a Wellcome Book Prize shortlist event in London once again, featuring  five of the shortlisted writers: Will Eaves, Sarah Krasnostein, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sandeep Jauhar and Arnold Thomas Fanning. While I’m sad that, once again, I won’t be hearing from my favourite shortlisted writer (though this is unsurprising given that McBee lives in New York), I loved this event in 2018, when I live-tweeted it, and have already booked tickets – along with three of my friends who were also big fans of last year’s event, despite not having read any of the shortlisted books! It’s on 7pm on the 30th April, and you can get tickets here.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #3/Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Freshwater

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One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match.

Born in Nigeria to Igbo and Tamil parents, Ada is inhabited by ogbanje, an Igbo term that might translate as ‘evil spirits’ but, as Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, makes clear, is actually much more complicated. ‘Ogbanje’ are also ‘children who come and go’, or what we might think of as changeling children, children of gods who don’t properly belong in this world. To be an ‘ogbanje’, as Ada is, is to be marked out as special. Ada is also a practicing Christian, but while her internal ogbanje recognise the presence of what they call Yshwa, or Christ, they don’t perceive him as having any particular status, and have their own take on his motives: ‘while he loves humans… what they forget is that he loves them as a god does, which is to say, with a taste for suffering’. One of Ada’s selves, Asughara, is particularly resentful of Yshwa, whom they call ‘that fucking resurrected bastard’ after losing an argument with him.

If this all sounds a little metaphysical, you’re not alone; I approached Freshwater with some trepidation. However, I ended up engaging with it a lot more easily than I expected. Emezi’s writing makes the conflict between Ada and her various selves real and concrete, more like the interactions between the gods of a Greek myth than the inner monologue of a person with multiple personality disorder. This is obviously deliberate. One of the things that’s most brilliant about Freshwater is its refusal to line up Ada’s experience with Western psychological or psychoanalytical categories. Insofar as these diagnoses are useful as a way of understanding our experience, Emezi suggests that Ada can most effectively come to terms with herself by using the language of Igbo belief. Because of this, and despite its longlisting for the Wellcome Book PrizeFreshwater doesn’t feel like a novel about mental illness but more a novel about coming to terms with the relationship between self and world.

Emezi writes particularly well on Ada’s struggle to live in a physical body, observations that seem to be drawn from Emezi’s own experience (they identify as non-binary). This manifests not exactly as gender dysphoria but as an inability to reconcile how one sees oneself with how others see us. After Ada has a breast reduction, she starts wearing dresses more often; one of her friends can’t understand this, saying ‘Most people get it done to be more masculine’. But for Ada, the surgery wasn’t intended to help her fit into a particular gender category more easily but to complicate people’s impressions of her. If Freshwater doesn’t quite work at times, it’s because of its closeness to Emezi’s own life, and the redundancies that inevitably creep in when you try and compress life into fiction (there seem to be too many temporary lovers, and I wasn’t sure what purpose Ada’s siblings served). Nevertheless, this is a startling novel that deserves its place on both the Women’s Prize and Wellcome Prize longlists – and I wish it had gone forward to the Wellcome shortlist.

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2019: Murmur & Mind on Fire

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Will Eaves’s short novel, Murmur, is loosely linked to the life of the mathematician Alan Turing, best-known for inventing the machine that cracked German codes during the Second World War, and for undergoing forced chemical castration after one of his homosexual encounters was discovered, and thereafter, committing suicide. (Turing is fictionalised here as ‘Alec Pryor’, but the link is obvious.) The novel is bookended by two short sections very distinct in style from its much longer middle. The first, originally a short story shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017, describes, in a journal entry, the liaison with working-class Cyril that led to Pryor’s punishment. The second, even shorter, depicts Pryor conversing with ‘the council of machines’, who tell him that he is losing his mind. Playing with ideas about AI, the council of machines claim that they have been fully aware from the start, through all the suffering of the Industrial Revolution, and so Pryor need not think that the painful consciousness of humans is a unique burden. Both of these sections are breathtakingly good; Eaves’s prose is beautifully direct, and the odd links Pryor makes in the second section are not necessarily logical, but still connect up perfectly well.

Unfortunately, I found the bulk of Murmur, which sits between these two bits, virtually unreadable. Eaves tries to convey what the inner workings of Turing’s mind might actually have been like while he was undergoing hormone treatment and descending into an altered state, and the results are highly irritating. Most of the novel consists of either dream sequences or letters that are ostensibly addressed to a person but are really letters to the self – two of the devices I most hate in fiction. As I also struggle with novels that are completely detached from reality, it’s no surprise that I didn’t get on with this. Even in this section, there are some beautiful passages, such as when Pryor recalls swimming in a lake with schoolfriend Christopher – but these are swiftly interrupted by another cluster of references, doublings, and psycho-analytical allusions.

I’ve been trying to work out why I find this kind of experimental literary fiction so offputting, as I’m certainly not averse to experimental literary fiction in general. There are a number of possible reasons. First, it strikes me, like a lot of postmodern literary criticism, as being more clever than wise; rather than striving to say things in the simplest way possible, it seems to delight in obtuseness. Unlike, for example, Anna Burns’s Milkman, the style isn’t working hard in service of what the writer wants to say but is getting in the way. Secondly, I think what really interests me in fiction is how humans respond to external and internal conflict, particularly if ethical, their complex relationships with other human beings, and how they think these through; when a narrator’s mind is this distanced from itself, there’s no such rational conflict, even if you could argue that conflict is still happening. Thirdly, I guess I’m unconvinced that this is the only way novels can push boundaries; it seems to me that within a more realist mode there are still hugely interesting things to be done, and I’d rather read books that are working in that direction.

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In contrast, I found Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire, a memoir of living with bipolar disorder, much more engaging than I’d expected, although his writing is more humdrum than Eaves’s. Fanning suffered severely from mania and depression for ten years, wrestling with his own delusions, and at his lowest point, spending a winter homeless on the streets of London. I think what worked for me about Mind on Fire is that Fanning is recounting it from a position of stability – apart from a brief, necessary section at the beginning, there’s no attempt to actually try and capture his state of mind on the page. This memoir gives the reader important insights into the experience of living with serious mental illness, and I also liked the way Fanning handled his account of his own childhood and adolescence in Ireland. While there are a number of factors that may have contributed to his poor mental health – the early death of his mother, a difficult and distant father – he doesn’t attempt to draw neat causal lines between the two, but simply presents what he remembers. Fanning’s honesty throughout the entirety of this memoir is courageous and creditable.

However, I still felt that this memoir could have had a greater impact if it had been structured differently. Like many memoirs of physical illness – Porochista Khakpour’s Sick comes to mind – Mind on Fire becomes inevitably repetitive, as Fanning continually presents himself to hospitals and becomes a psychiatric in-patient, is discharged, has a period of good health, and then starts to spiral into manic depression again. Moreover, the memoir ends rather abruptly, with only a few pages given over to Fanning’s recovery, and how he’s dealt with bipolar disorder long-term. It seemed to me that both these problems could have been solved if Fanning had compressed the period of his illness somewhat, and spent more time on the period after he ‘turned the corner’. Records of emails and letters, in particular, felt to me like Fanning was doing the very necessary work of piecing together this period in his life for himself, but I wasn’t sure that all this detail needed to be in his published narrative. A great resource for those who want to learn more about bipolar disorder, or perhaps for those living with it themselves, but not an outstanding memoir.

Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her copy of this book.

Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Language of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, working across a range of specialisms that included resuscitation, paediatrics and mental health. I totally agree with Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nursing care, and how, as a female-dominated profession, it is systematically overlooked and undervalued. A number of my close family members are nurses and the work they do is so important. So why did this memoir irritate me consistently? Partly, I think, it’s Watson’s voice – there’s a lack of the kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that I’ve encountered in junior doctors’ memoirs such as Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands, or in other professional memoirs such as barrister Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence (both highly recommended!) and so Watson comes across as far too complacent.

It’s difficult for me to review this fairly, I think, because once you lose trust in the narrator of a memoir like this, that’s it – you keep on finding fault. For me, this happened pretty early on. I’ve encountered a recent spate of horror stories about the way parents are treated by nurses in PICU, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, and SCBU, Special Care Baby Unit (search ‘Mumsnet SCBU/NNU/PICU’ for some of these). Watson has nothing but praise for the nurses in these units, and I’m sure many of them are doing a very good job under extremely tough circumstances. However, the judgmental and misogynistic expectations placed on mothers in these units come through even in Watson’s positive account:  ‘The nurses do everything they can to treat mother and baby as one unit… In maternity units in some private hospitals, babies are taken from the mum directly after birth to be cared for in the nursery’. But what about the mother’s needs, which are separate from those of her infant? The fact that it’s relatively new practice to refuse to part mothers and babies after birth, even if the mother is recovering from an emergency C-section and can’t safely take care of her baby? Accounts from mothers also indicate that they were judged harshly for not being by their baby’s side night and day in PICU/SCBU – even if they had other children to care for at home.

This section is typical of the book as a whole. Apart from a brief paragraph that admits that a few nurses are not very good at their jobs, Watson permits no criticism – and most doctors get short shrift, dropping in from on high to deliver a diagnosis then leaving the nurses with the real work. While I’m in no doubt this is how some consultants behave, it’s evident from the accounts of junior doctors that this is a misrepresentation of their work. This interesting review on Goodreads also points out that Watson is in the habit of minimising the significance of other professions as well – in this case, translators. She also has little to say about other hospital workers who are not part of a ‘profession’ but are nonetheless vital, such as healthcare assistants and porters. Ultimately, this came off as a rather sugar-coated account of life as a nurse.

Watching

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I went to see Rafiki at the Tyneside Cinema last night, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiru. Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) is currently banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal, because it depicts a lesbian relationship too positively. Kahiru was asked by the Kenya Film Classification Board to change the hopeful ending, but she refused. From my perspective, Rafiki is more of a significant political statement about LGBT rights in Kenya than a groundbreaking piece of art. The story it tells, about two girls who discover their sexuality together and then are brutally torn apart, is very familiar. The evocation of Nairobi is colourful and vivid, and both protagonists give great performances. However, it made me think about how incredibly limited the stories we tell about bisexual and lesbian women are, and how lesbianism tends to be shallowly explored, if it features at all, in Western fiction and film as well (compare the recent Disobedience, which deletes the novel’s complexity, and both versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which are uplifting, but have little interesting to say). However, this is not to criticise Rafiki, which is doing a very important job. You can watch the trailer for Rafiki here.

Thinking

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Not the novel discussed below, which many people liked more than I did!

A while back, I wrote a fairly negative review of a writer’s second novel. I was especially cross about this particular book because it felt lazy and rushed. I posted the review on my blog and on Goodreads, but didn’t tag the author anywhere. Despite this, the writer in question took the time to seek me out on Twitter and block me – even though this was a platform where we’d had no interaction at all. So, this led me to think about why I write critical book reviews.

I disagree with much of what is said in this provocative article on book reviews in Harper’s, ‘Like This Or Die’, not least its eager dismissal of anything that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘literary fiction’ and its weird hostility to television. However, I think it has a point about the relentless push towards solely positive coverage of books in the mainstream media and on social media. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) promoted by authors themselves, whom I often see tweeting things like this:

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[I love James Smythe’s work so feel bad picking on him here – it’s just the latest example of the trend I could find!]

This kind of statement is often extended to book bloggers and reviewers as well, or, more threateningly, to aspiring writers, who are told that if they want to get published themselves, they should spread positivity at all times [again, this link is to a blog that I generally like!]

I find this stance both repressive and bizarre. Firstly, there’s the suggestion that critical reviews (I think the terms ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ reviews are too loaded) are permissible, as long as they don’t come from other writers. Why? Secondly, there’s the hidden implication that actually nobody should be writing critical reviews at all – that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t say anything about it. I find this absurd for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, I don’t review books for the sake of their writers. I review them for other readers, as a reader. I don’t tag writers in critical book reviews, even if the criticism is very minor, so if they seek them out, that’s on them.
  • The idea that published writers are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism from bloggers is a little strange to me. I tend to think that if you’ve demanded a reader’s time and attention by publishing a book, you need to be able to take polite feedback if you have sought it out (again, I don’t advocate sending bad reviews to writers, or being rude, and I assume here that writers with mental health conditions or specific personal circumstances will be able to avoid critical reviews).
  • I find this PARTICULARLY weird because all unpublished writers are essentially told to ‘just suck it up and get better’ when it comes to dealing with criticism of their work, whereas for published writers, there’s suddenly an attitude of ‘I don’t want to criticise something that someone’s put so much work into’ – so, in short, there’s a double standard in play that implies that unpublished writers’ work is less valuable and has required less labour.
  • Moreover, I think critical reviews can actually be helpful for other writers (i.e. the ones that didn’t write the book in question!) I’ve learnt a lot more about writing from reading intelligent, critical reviews than totally positive reviews.
  • It can also be impossible in practice, if you’re an honest reviewer, to avoid negative reviews if you are on a shadow panel, a blog tour, or have proof copies to review. If I really find a book unreadable I won’t review it, but this has only happened once or twice.
  • Finally, all this is off the table if a book is problematic and offensive, when suddenly everybody seems to agree that it needs to be ‘called out’, even if this jars with their usual stance on critical reviews.

My feeling is, that if I ever publish a novel, I may not seek out criticism from readers; but in the abstract, I could only be grateful to those who engage thoughtfully and critically with my work, especially if they aren’t paid to do so.

What are other people’s thoughts on writing critical reviews?

Thoughts on the Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2019

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The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist is out!

I’m delighted to see Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur there, which was by far my favourite of the longlisted titles I’ve read so far, although I’m disappointed that Jessie Greengrass’s Sight and Jean Hannah Edelstein’s This Really Isn’t About You didn’t make the cut.

I had mixed feelings about both Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner and Sandeep Jauhar’s HeartThe Trauma Cleaner had chapters of brilliance but seemed to me to lack perspective on its subject, whereas Heart was readable, but forgettable. I suspect the latter has been included to make sure there’s at least one ‘serious medical book’ considering physical illness on the shortlist, as the rest skew strongly towards mental illness and questions about gender identity and transition.

I’ve not yet read Will Eaves’s Murmur, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire. I’m looking forward to the first two – Annabel rated Murmur very highly, and Rebecca’s review of My Year… has persuaded me that it’s something I might enjoy. However, I’m still pretty certain that I won’t like Mind on Fire.

After last year’s female-dominated shortlist and an evenly split longlist, this year the men outnumber the women, with four books by men (including one trans man) and only two by women. Writers of colour get slightly more of a look-in than last year, with two advancing to the shortlist. Themes of sexuality (Murmur) and trans identity (Amateur, The Trauma Cleaner) are really prominent.

I’m looking forward to reading the remaining books and discussing with the rest of the Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel!

Early Spring Reading

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As a free school meals student at a comprehensive school in the deprived Suffolk town of Nusstead, Marianne is determined to pursue her dream of studying art history at university. But things have become even worse for her family since the closure of the local mental hospital, Nazareth, during the move towards community care, which robbed Nusstead of around four hundred jobs. Exploring Nazareth’s crumbling Victorian buildings with her boyfriend, Jesse, she comes across something that might be a solution to her problems. More than thirty years later, a successfully socially mobile Marianne is abruptly brought back into contact with her past – and she’s terrified that if her long-held secret comes out, her mentally fragile daughter will suffer.

I’m a fan of all of Erin Kelly’s psychological thrillers, but with Stone Mothers, she’s really surpassed herself. The novel effortlessly manages three timelines and three voices, moving from the 1950s to the 1980s to the present day, while establishing a distinct register for each. While the opening paragraphs are a little needlessly grabby, the novel as a whole refuses to follow a traditional thriller structure, and is the better for it. The characterisation is satisfyingly complex, and I particularly admired the way that Kelly writes about Marianne’s working-class adolescence, and her relationships with her sister and mother in both the present and the past.

Thematically, mental illness is woven subtly throughout the story, from the patients incarcerated in Nazareth in the 1950s to Marianne’s mother’s dementia and her daughter’s bipolar disorder in the present day. Kelly uses her research on changing attitudes to mental health care lightly, which makes it even more convincing. Without giving anything away, I’ve read a number of novels which foreground the story of somebody committed to an asylum for social transgressions, from Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to Anna Hope’s The Ballroom and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and, in my opinion, Kelly writes about it most vividly and convincingly; in particular, she’s careful to note the sufferings of those who are actually mentally ill as well as of those who are mentally ‘well’.

Stone Mothers is utterly gripping, but in a rather different way from the run-of-the-mill thriller; it doesn’t rely on plot twists (although there are some!) but on the strength of its characterisation to pull the reader along. I’d recommend this confidently to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware and Sabine Durrant.

Disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, I genuinely thought this was wonderful. I also received a proof copy from the publisher for review (not via Erin). Stone Mothers is out in the UK on the 4th April.

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Eleven-year-old Chinese orphan, Ren, worked as a houseboy for a British doctor before his master’s death; his last request is that Ren find his severed finger and reunite it with his corpse so that his soul doesn’t end up roaming the earth for all eternity. But Ren only has forty-two days to carry out his master’s final wish, before the doctor’s soul departs forever. Meanwhile, Ji-Lin, working at a dance hall in Ipoh to pay off her mother’s mah-jong debts and to try and save some money for her own education, receives a preserved finger in a vial from one of her clients, who then abruptly passes away in his turn. As Ren searches for the finger, he acquires a new British master, Dr William Acton, and rumours begin of a sinister weretiger that is killing local women. How are Ren’s, Ji-Lin’s and William’s stories intertwined? Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia), The Night Tiger is deliberately symbolic, drawing repeatedly on the five Confucian virtues and on the pairs of twins that reoccur in the central characters’ dreams to suggest that its cast is linked by a fate that has followed them since they were born.

Choo tries hard to maintain the atmosphere of her story, but it’s a long book (480 pages), and it feels long; the plot has little direction, with the quest for the finger resolved early and the tiger attacks barely impinging on the story. While both Ren and Ji-Lin are engaging characters, I found myself waiting for the short bits from William, as it was only in those sections that anything much seemed to happen. I also found the romantic element of Ji-Lin’s plot too YA-ish, and a bit patriarchal, for my liking. Furthermore, I’m a little impatient with the way that folklore is used in plots like this – despite the promise of the weretiger myths, The Night Tiger ends up focusing almost entirely on magic sets of numbers, and even those are largely used in repetitive dream sequences. (In fact, I’m not sure why it’s called The Night Tiger at all). Despite the promise of the setting, the novel also failed to give me much of a sense of colonial Malaya. Started well, but lost momentum.

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

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Growing up in 1970s Belfast, middle sister never wanted to be interesting, but now she is.   Even though she’s been dating maybe-boyfriend for some time, a rumour’s going round that she’s actually with the milkman, who isn’t really a milkman at all but is a renouncer of the state. She tries her best to avoid the milkman, not wanting to be tagged as one of the renouncers, but he keeps on turning up – at her French class, where they don’t often speak French, and when she’s out running with third brother-in-law. Meanwhile, maybe-boyfriend is suspected of receiving a car part from over the water, and the milkman threatens to kill him. Will this all be resolved if middle sister keeps on keeping her head down, putting on her ‘I don’t know‘, ‘her terminal face’ – or will she have to take some kind of action?

Apologies in advance for the non-literariness of this review, but I found Anna Burns’s Milkman a uniquely frustrating read. Every day I would pick it up to read about fifteen pages (my daily limit), and every day I’d tell myself this was the last day, that I wouldn’t have to go back to this book ever again, that it was fine to leave it unfinished. But the bloody thing kept pulling me back in. Whenever I decided to give up on it, Burns would pull something so incredible out that I had to keep reading, however much of a slog it might be. Some of this was about the Troubles – Burns captures the experience of living in a community under threat from both outside and inside better than anything else I’d ever read – but some of it was just how well Burns writes about any subject at all. Here is middle sister on the arrival of second-wave feminism to the district:

This housewife’s notice said ‘ATTENTION ALL WOMEN OF THE DISTRICT: GREAT GOOD NEWS!!’ then followed information about some international women’s group that had been inaugurated unexpectedly into the world. It was seeking to set up sister branches in all the world’s countries, with no place… to be excluded from the remit, with no woman – again, any colour, any creed, any sexual preference, any disability, any mental illness or even general dislikeability, indeed, of any type of diversity – to be excluded from the venture… In her notice in the window, and in a daring modern fashion, she invited all women from the area to put their children out for their evening adventures as usual then, unencumbered, to make their way of a Wednesday evening to her house to hear her talk.

As this suggests, middle sister’s voice is often surprisingly, subtly funny – something you don’t often expect in experimental literary fiction. I particularly loved her interactions with ‘wee sisters’, her very bright, very contrary three younger sisters who all blend into one.

If I have one actual criticism of this book, it’s the lack of paragraphs. Seriously:

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[there are occasionally paragraph breaks, but not on every page!]

Everything else about the book that might be seen as ‘challenging’ – the run-on sentences, the lack of proper names, the quasi-nineteenth-century voice – was completely necessary and not actually that confusing, but I don’t think it would have made any difference if Burns had hit the ‘Enter’ key a lot more often. This may be peculiar to the way that I read – as far as I can tell, I think I tend to seek out the beginnings and ends of paragraphs, then somehow take in the whole thing in one go – but I found I kept on skipping bits accidentally and having to go back. So if this is a device to make people read more carefully, it didn’t work on me. Nevertheless, I’ve never before read a book that I literally couldn’t abandon even though I wanted to, and for that alone, I think Burns deserves her Booker win. (She’s also just been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize).

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Finally, a random observation. I finished Milkman at the same time as I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s dystopic sci-fi Annihilation, which follows four female scientists as they embark on an expedition into the mysterious Area X, and they kept on crossing over in odd ways in my head. Whether it was the lack of names, the endemic distrust within a small group of people, the formal first-person narrators, or the feeling of being trapped in an enclosed space where nothing quite makes sense, I don’t know!

Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Amateur

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Thomas Page McBee starts training as an amateur boxer after encountering an angry man on Orchard Street who accuses him of taking a photograph of his car. McBee abruptly finds himself caught up in an alpha-male showdown:

“I was taking a photo of the restaurant in front of your car,” I tried, softening my tone a bit, breaking the rules of the scene. “I want to take my girlfriend on a date there.” I remembered, at the last moment, not to add an upward lilt to the end of my thought.

I saw the flash!” he growled, beyond logic, a man committed to his part… “Give. Me. Your. Phone.”…

I marshalled the self-control to turn and walk away… “Hey!” he shouted… “Asshole!”…

I let an acidic rage bloom… colouring my tone such a ragged mess I didn’t recognise my own voice. “I. Did. Not. Take. A. Picture. Of. Your. Fucking. Car.”

He backed away with his hands up. “Okay, okay,” he mumbled. “Jesus.”

Since his transition, a subject he deals with in his first memoir, Man Alive, McBee has increasingly found himself caught up in situations like these, where he wants to break out of the pattern of toxic masculinity but finds himself instinctively conforming. He might have wanted to become a man, but what kind of man does he want to be? ‘I began this book,’ he writes, ‘because, though I could not articulate it then, I understood that I could not know why I wanted to break that man’s teeth on Orchard Street without understanding, in turn, why he wanted to break mine.’

As a trans man, McBee understands both what it means to be socialised as a woman (the ‘upward lilt’ he has to stop himself adding to the end of his sentences) and how things change once society sees you as male. Voice comes up again and again. At one point, McBee and his brother talk over his sister, Clare, with their ‘jocular camaraderie’ about boxing, even though Clare has been taking boxing classes for years. McBee doesn’t notice what has happened until his girlfriend, Jess, points it out, although to his credit, he later apologises and talks it through with Clare. He also, suddenly, gets listened to at work. ‘Six months into my transition… testosterone made my voice low. Really low. So low that I was almost impossible to hear in a loud bar… But when I did talk, people didn’t just listen; they leaned in. They kept their eyes focused on my mouth, or down at their hands, as if to rid themselves of any distraction beyond my powerful words. The first time I spoke up at a meeting… in my newly quiet baritone, I noticed that sudden, focused attention’.

It’s taken me a while to write about this book because I had such an emotional reaction to it. McBee breaks away from familiar narratives about sex and gender to tell a new kind of story about what it means to be trans, and about what it means to be a man or a woman. I’m obviously not trans, but I identified so strongly with McBee’s discomfort around gender, about his wish to be treated as a man without letting down women – and his conflict about what being ‘like a man’ really meant. It reminded me of a conversation my sister once had on Facebook, about being cat-called in the street. After recounting her unpleasant experience, she wrote about a different encounter in Bristol [shared with her permission]:

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That’s the thing, I always want to say when I read books like McBee’s. None of us want to be a ‘darling’. We all want to be a ‘mate’, or at least I do. I admire McBee’s strength in dealing with his abusive past, in coming out as trans, and in writing so eloquently about his experiences; but I couldn’t help feeling a little unfairly jealous of him, too, as he travelled towards a place where I can never go. And even though I’m not a man, even though I don’t agree with this sort of behaviour, I could see why he wanted to break the angry man’s teeth; how hard it is to let go of privilege that feels so powerful.

Amateur is incredibly thought-provoking, carefully and precisely written, and ultimately, very moving, and it had better end up on the Wellcome shortlist; in fact, I’d love to see it win.

Thanks very much to Midas PR for sending me a free copy of Amateur for review.

Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: This Really Isn’t About You

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Like many other elite white millennials, Jean Hannah Edelstein felt somewhat adrift throughout her twenties and into her early thirties; trying to pursue a career in writing and publishing, she moved between London, Berlin and New York, having few long-term relationships with men and not able to meet traditional ‘adult’ goals. (Edelstein writes interestingly on the changing definitions of adulthood here). There’s a sense in which Edelstein is always neither here nor there; caught between her American upbringing and her many years of living in Britain and Germany, confused by a Jewishness that is signalled clearly by her last name but which, unlike surnames, is not inherited down the male line. However, this familiar kind of memoir is punctuated by two terrible things: Edelstein’s father’s death from lung cancer, and Edelstein’s own discovery that she has inherited Lynch syndrome from him, a genetic mutation that significantly raises her lifetime risk of a number of types of cancer.

Edelstein’s discovery pushes her even further into liminal spaces, especially the doctors’ recommendation that she has a prophylactic hysterectomy and oophorectomy to limit her chances of getting womb and ovarian cancer. But Edelstein wants to have children, and she’s afraid that she won’t feel like a woman any more if she doesn’t have her reproductive organs, even though she’s fully aware that being a woman is not dependent on being able to, or wanting to have, babies. ‘I suspected that it is problematic to be a single woman in your thirties because men assume you are desperate to have children,’ she writes, ‘but even more problematic if you are facing surgery that is going to make that impossible‘. Thankfully, this all has a happy ending: Edelstein’s son, born through IVF to avoid the chance of him inheriting Lynch syndrome, was born at the end of 2018.

This Really Isn’t About You is cleverly structured – Edelstein starts with her diagnosis, flashes back to the way she lived her life before, then ends with the aftermath – and very well-written. The memoir is lifted above similar offerings such as Meg Fee’s Places I Stopped On The Way Home not just because of its subject-matter but because of the specificity of Edelstein’s observations. Her memories of her father avoid generic emotion and are incredibly touching; ‘On Sunday mornings my father made us all pancakes for breakfast, including ones without eggs and milk for my brother, who was allergic to eggs and milk, and including one pancake for the dog… [He] once developed a failsafe method for making Jell-O, using the microwave. During the course of its development he produced so much Jell-O… that he started giving it away to the neighbours. The neighbours seemed a little surprised to receive the gift of Jell-O. My father thought it was a fine gift.’ As someone who spent five years of her childhood in Washington DC then moved back to Britain, I also appreciated Edelstein’s transatlantic observations from the other direction. This is very true: ‘I would start feeling sorry for my cousins [in Scotland] who were trapped in a place where it rained for so many days in the summer and where, in the late 80s, there seemed to be only four television channels and two flavours of ice cream: vanilla, which was sliced from a brick, and rum & raisin, which was disgusting.’

I’d love to see This Really Isn’t About You advance to the Wellcome Prize shortlist: apart from Jessie Greengrass’s Sightit’s my favourite entry so far.

The quick and the dead

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All That Remains, written by forensic anthropologist Sue Black, thinks about the significance of cadaver identification and the fates of dead bodies in a number of contexts: identifying victims during civil war in Kosovo, the preservation of donor corpses for medical students to dissect, and seeking clues to the cause of death of skeletons found in isolated places. Some bits of it worked for me and some bits didn’t; Black’s voice is not especially sympathetic (although she occasionally made me laugh!), and she sometimes falls prey to the temptation to discuss a particular professional achievement in too much detail. However, certain chapters were both informative and thought-provoking. I loved the section when Black clearly explains the difficulties of identifying the height, sex, race and age of a skeleton, and I’ll probably be nit-picking a lot of crime novels on this point from now on (no, dental records are not the only way to identify bones, and so smashing up the teeth of a corpse and substituting different ones isn’t going to effectively hide your crime, murderers in Tim Weaver’s ridiculous Chasing the Dead).

Black also makes a passionate case for the necessity of appropriately identifying bodies, even when the cause of death is known and the fact of death is certain, to allow families to properly grieve and to restore some dignity to the dead. This is a topic I find difficult; it’s always seemed to me to be wasteful to expend huge resources to retrieve dead bodies, and I don’t see that the dead mind whether or not they have dignity, as long as their corpse isn’t being desecrated and they don’t end up on public display. However, some of the incidents that Black describes – in particular, the horrific death of an entire family except for the father in Kosovo – have made me think that this kind of work and expense is absolutely appropriate in certain circumstances. This commitment, however, sits in strange contrast to her proclaimed ‘unsentimental’ attitude towards death.

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Heart, by cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar, has been longlisted for this year’s Wellcome Prize. It’s a stroll through the history of heart surgery interwoven with Jauhar’s own career as a surgeon and his own family’s experience of heart disease – a history that’s catching up with him, as he discovers plaques in his own coronary arteries during a CT scan. Jauhar writes better about cardiology than does Stephen Westaby in Fragile Lives, but his prose is still workmanlike rather than memorable; it never reaches the heights of Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm or Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. The structure, at times, was a bit annoying, as Jauhar deliberately interweaves the story of a single real case between chunks of history and medical detail – I found that I kept skipping forward to find out what happened to the patient, as the intervening material was not directly relevant to my understanding of the case. I was also sorry that there was so little about heart transplants, purely because organ transplantation is a particular fascination of mine.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Heart more and more as it went on, and unlike Westaby, Jauhar himself comes across as likeable and modest – he manages to write about his own personal experiences without forcing himself to the forefront. I preferred the technical medical bits to the gallop through the history of cardiology, finding the chapters on ventricular fibrillation, stress and implantable defibrillators, which can link the two by causing panic attacks in patients who repeatedly receive unexpected shocks to kick their hearts back into rhythm, especially interesting. There are also unintended cross-links with Black’s book. Both writers describe the death of their parents, and how it feels to be part of the oldest generation of your family that remains; as Jauhar puts it, ‘while your parents are alive, there is always someone who thinks of you as a child.’ Both muse on the fact that a sudden heart attack is both the most welcome and the most fearsome way to die, although they reach different conclusions; Jauhar welcomes the heart as ‘a safety valve that can facilitate a quick and humane end’, whereas Black admits that despite the mercifulness of a quick death, she herself wants to spend at least a little time dying so she can put her affairs in order and understand what it feels like to die. Both worthwhile reads, if a little short on literary skill.

Thanks to Rebecca for sending me her proof copy of Heart!