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.
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 29, which 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.
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.
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?