Since 2009, the Wellcome Collection has promoted great writing about health and science with a prestigious annual award. 2016's shortlist cover both fact and fiction and are all brilliant. We take a look at this year’s contenders.
Read any good meds lately?
The Wellcome Book Prize is presented to the best work on the subject of medicine or illness published in the UK over the previous twelve months.
One of the richest prizes in the industry, the book of the year wins its author a cool £30,000. This is an eclectic award, open to both fiction and non-fiction. Past winners range from historical accounts of medical breakthroughs to cutting-edge contemporary insights into human behaviour, and even a thriller about a woman with Alzheimer’s who is accused of murder (Alice La Plante’s Turn of Mind).
An ever-changing roster of judges means it’s impossible to second-guess which way the votes will go in any given year. The 2016 chair of judges Joan Bakewell has now revealed this year’s shortlist. Here’s an overview:
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
“A lyrical, brave memoir. It’s Liptrot’s aptitude for marrying her inner-space with wild outer-spaces that makes her such a compelling writer.”
—Will Self, Guardian
Amy Liptrot was a lost soul on the streets of East London with a sorry history of alcohol addiction, lost jobs and failed relationships. This is a frank and inspirational account of how she turned her life around via an arduous rehab programme and a return to the wild nature of Orkney, where she was born and raised.
By turns shocking and insightful, this is an unforgettably moving memoir about pulling back from the brink, and the wonder of restorative nature.
Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
“Few writers demonstrate such quietly magisterial command of the rocky territories of both the heart and mind.”
—Lucy Scholes, Independent
Set in the 1880s, this is a sequel to Moss’s novel Bodies of Light, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize. Newly-married Tom and Ally Cavendish are separated by personal ambitions that see him go off to Japan to build lighthouses while she stays behind in Cornwall to keep up her groundbreaking work at a Truro asylum.
A brilliant portrait of ambition, isolation and medical advance.
It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan
(Chatto & Windus)
“[An] extraordinary and extraordinarily compassionate book.”
—James McConnachie, Sunday Times
The consultant neurologist presents seven personal stories of imagined ailments that explode taboos about psychosomatic illness, alongside an overview of reports and reactions to delusion and hysteria through history.
An engaging and eye-opening exploration of how the mind computes and falters in the face of perceived crisis.
Playthings by Alex Phelby
(Galley Beggar Press)
“A powerful exposition of Kant's celebrated view that ‘the madman is a waking dreamer.’”
Paul Schreber was a German judge whose 1903 account of illness episodes we now understand as paranoid schizophrenia became a case study for Sigmund Freud and shaped modern psychotherapy.
A compelling historical novel that speculates about Schreber’s final confinement in a troubling and moving exploration of a breakdown of mind and society.
The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink
“I never knew a story of grief could have so much joy in it.”
Cathy Rentzenbrink’s brother was effectively killed in a road accident in 1990, two weeks before his brilliant GSCE results were released. He remained in a coma for the next eight years as his sister and parents agonised about an eventual recovery which would never come.
Rentzenbrink looks back on those years of hope, love and harrowing setbacks, and the impossible decision to say goodbye.
NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman
(Allen & Unwin)
“Brilliant and sparklingly humane.”
—Stephen Poole, Guardian
Will the geeks inherit the earth? New research into ‘neurodiversity’ is looking to build a more compassionate understanding of social and learning difficulties that have historically branded some of the brightest sparks of human society as slow-witted.
A pioneering study of autism from the earliest research to the soaring number of recent diagnoses that have their roots in past suppression.
About the panel
This year’s chair, the acclaimed author, journalist and broadcaster Baroness Bakewell, is joined on the judging panel by Frances Balkwill, Professor of Cancer Biology at Barts Cancer Institute and author of science books for children; writer, columnist and salon host Damian Barr; novelist Tessa Hadley; and journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera.
“All the judges were engrossed by the range of books we had to consider,” said Bakewell, adding that the shortlist “reflects what has moved and inspired us most about books that deal with intimate and often complex matters of the human body and human experience. Each one has found its way not just onto the shortlist, but into our hearts.”
The judges concurred that choosing a champion from such a diverse selection will be tough. The winner will be announced on 25 April.