Chair of judges Bill Bryson has announced the shortlist for the Wellcome Book Prize, one of the quirkiest – and richest – literary awards in the UK. Open to both fiction and non-fiction, the prize was set up in 2009 to celebrate books that engage with any aspect of medicine, health or illness.
Worth £30,000, the 2015 prize is judged by a panel comprising Bill Bryson, Prof. Uta Frith DBE, Mark Haddon, Razia Iqbal and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. Bryson said of the shortlist: “All six books blend exquisite writing with scientific rigour and personal experience, making medical science accessible in six very different ways. Having found my own way to science through literature, I’m thrilled to recommend each one of them.”
This year two novels have made the cut, along with factual accounts of human evolution, neurosurgery, living with anxiety, and coping with the slow death of a loved one. Only one novel has previously won the prize: Alice Laplante’s Turn of Mind, a harrowing and inventive thriller about an alleged murderer who has Alzheimer’s. Could it be fiction’s turn again? Here’s a flick through the runners and riders.
The Iceberg by Marion Coutts (Atlantic Books)
An absorbing memoir of a life cut short. In 2008, Coutts’ husband, the art critic Tom Lubbock, was diagnosed with a brain tumour that slowly robbed him of the ability to speak, at the same time as his new son was picking up language for the first time. Furious and tender, this is a haunting celebration of love, family, work, art and language.
“This book bowls me over with its beauty and profundity, and it seems a new kind of thinking in itself, a work of word art unlike any other.” – Laura Cumming
Do No Harm by Henry Marsh (Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Phoenix)
This extraordinary reflection on a life dedicated to operating on the human brain reveals the thrill and drama of neurosurgery at close quarters. The everyday chaos of working in a modern hospital is counterbalanced by rationality and hope as both the surgeon and his patients face up to agonising choices.
“Neurosurgery has met its Boswell in Henry Marsh. Painfully honest… a superb achievement.” – Ian McEwan
Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss (Granta)
Moss’s third novel, set in Victorian Manchester and London, is a story about Britain’s first generation of female doctors. Ally Moberly has to leave her family behind and move south to pursue her ambition to read and practice medicine. The first in a two-book series, it’s a fascinating study of a psychologically turbulent age told with great warmth and power.
“I loved and admired Bodies of Light. Right from the first page, it’s fair to say I was quite mesmerised. This is such a good novel.” – Margaret Forster
The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being by Alice Roberts (Quercus)
A brilliant study of every human’s evolution from a single cell to a complex organism, explaining the gifts and glitches we have inherited from ancient ancestors whose traces are embedded in our DNA. A spellbinding tour of the human body in which no bone or organ or bodily funtion is left unexamined.
“From your brain to your fingertips, you emerge from this book entertained and with a deeper understanding of yourself.” – Richard Dawkins
My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel (Windmill Books)
An intimate and authoritative history of the most commonly occurring form of mental illness. Stossel depicts anxiety’s crippling impact from the inside, as well as offering keen insight into the biological, cultural and environmental factors that contribute to the affliction. An unsparing and unflinchingly honest portrayal of an invisible but profoundly debilitating condition.
“He brings to this story depth, intelligence and perspective that could enlighten untold fellow sufferers for years to come.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber & Faber)
This deeply engaging and terrifyingly funny novel tells the story of two sisters battling to cope with the daily travails of love, work and family, as well as the insistent spectre of self-harm and suicide. A dazzling and heartbreaking meditation on the agonies and challenges modern living, all the more powerful for being based on personal events.
“From its arresting opening sentence to its heart-catching last line, it is jaunty, matter-of-fact and full of zest and verve… Reads as if it has been wrenched from her heart.” – Sunday Times
The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize 2015 will be announced on Wednesday 29 April.