Beyond echo chambers and mental ghettos
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist has been announced, celebrating exceptional works of literature that illuminate the many ways that health, medicine and illness touch our lives. Gender, identity and mental health emerge as prominent themes across the list.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the prestigious award (find our coverage from previous years), with 12 titles in the running for the £30,000 prize. The longlist, selected by a judging panel chaired by award-winning author Elif Shafak, with Kevin Fong, Viv Groskop, Jon Day and Rick Edwards, is as follows:
- Amateur: A true story about what makes a man (Canongate Books) by Thomas Page McBee (USA) Non-fiction
- Astroturf (riverrun, Quercus) by Matthew Sperling(UK) Fiction
- Educated (Windmill Books/Cornerstone) by Tara Westover (USA) Non-fiction
- Freshwater (Faber & Faber) by Akwaeke Emezi(Nigeria) Fiction
- Heart: A history (Oneworld) by Sandeep Jauhar(India/USA) Non-fiction
- Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery(Penguin Ireland) by Arnold Thomas Fanning(Ireland) Non-fiction
- Murmur (CB Editions) by Will Eaves (UK) Fiction
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Jonathan Cape) by Ottessa Moshfegh (USA) Fiction
- Polio: The odyssey of eradication (Hurst Publishers) by Thomas Abraham (UK) Non-fiction
- Sight (John Murray Press) by Jessie Greengrass (UK) Fiction
- The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster (The Text Publishing Company) by Sarah Krasnostein(Australia/USA) Non-fiction
- This Really Isn’t About You (Picador) by Jean Hannah Edelstein (UK/USA) Non-fiction
Of the five fiction titles on the list, three are by debut novelists: Jessie Greengrass considers motherhood in her Women’s Prize shortlisted novel Sight; Akwaeke Emezi presents a metaphysical sense of self through physical and spiritual worlds in Freshwater; and Matthew Sperling’s Astroturf gives an insight into ‘toxic masculinity’ through the pursuit of perfection and performance-enhancing steroids.
The two further novels on the list look at what great bodily change can do to a person’s mind, with My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh chronicling a privileged New York woman’s decision to enter narcotic hibernation for a year, and Will Eaves fictionalising the chemical castration of mathematician Alan Turing in an extraordinary exploration of dreams, consciousness, science and the future in Murmur.
Memoirs dominate the seven non-fiction titles on the list, with modern masculinity untangled by Thomas Page McBee in Amateur, recounting his journey to become the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden, and Sarah Krasnostein’s biography The Trauma Cleaner uncovering the life of Sandra Pankhurst – husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife.
In Mind on Fire, Arnold Thomas Fanning gives a startlingly honest account of living with and recovering from psychosis, and Jean Hannah Edelstein shares her experience of facing the genetic cancer mutation that killed her father in This Really Isn’t About You. Mortality is also touched upon by cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar in Heart: A history, as he contemplates on his own family history and the medical pioneers who risked their careers to better understand this extraordinary organ.
Modern medicine and the attitudes towards medical innovation are also illuminated in Tara Westover’s critically acclaimed memoir about her survivalist upbringing, Educated. In the final non-fiction title on the list, Polio: The odyssey of eradication, Thomas Abraham reports on the widespread rejection of the polio vaccine and why a campaign to rid the world of a crippling disease became a hostage of geopolitics.
Elif Shafak commented on behalf of the judging panel: ‘In a world that remains sadly divided into echo chambers and mental ghettoes, this prize is unique in its ability to connect various disciplines: medicine, health, literature, art and science. Reading and discussing at length all the books on our list has been fascinating from the very start. We now have a wonderful longlist, of which we are all very proud. Although it sure won’t be easy to choose the shortlist, and then, finally, the winner, I am thrilled about and truly grateful for this fascinating journey through stories, ideas, ground-breaking research and revolutionary knowledge.’
The shortlist for the prize will be announced on Tuesday 19 March, with the winner revealed at an evening ceremony on Wednesday 1 May at Wellcome Collection.
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