The 2016 Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be tricky to winnow down as the judges, led by Joan Bakewell, expressed their deep enthusiasm and passion for all six titles. “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,” said Bakewell. “Each one has found its way not just onto the shortlist, but into our hearts.”
The prize was won last year by Marion Coutts’ powerful memoir The Iceberg, about the consequences of the brain tumour that debilitated and led to the death of her husband, art critic Tom Lubbock. Two memoirs feature this time around: Amy Liptrot’s account of her descent into and recovery from alcohol addiction, The Outrun; and Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, about the prolonged aftermath of her brother’s road accident the summer after his GCSEs. The other non-fiction titles are Steve Silberman’s absorbing examination of autism, Neurotribes, and Suzanne O’Sullivan’s tantalising case studies of psychosomatic illness It’s All in Your Head.
Two fiction titles make the list this year, each with a historical slant: Alex Pheby’s Playthings, an exploratory take on a famous early case of schizophrenia; and Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, about a pioneering woman doctor. Together, the shortlist represents an eclectic and provocative overview of our everyday encounters with medicine and illness. Here’s a brief look at the runners and riders:
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (Canongate)
A brutally honest tale of inglorious alcohol addiction, lost jobs and ruined relationships on the streets of East London; and an inspirational account of the steps the author took on the road to recovery via punishing rehab and a return to her Orkney roots. A thoughtful, poetic treatise on stepping back from the brink, and the power of nature to restore and renew.
“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… I enjoyed this book enormously.”
Will Self, Guardian
Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss (Granta Books)
A sequel to Bodies of Light, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize, this is the story of newly-married Tom and Ally Cavendish, who are separated by diverging professional ambitions. As Tom goes off to Japan to build lighthouses, Ally stays behind in Truro to continue her pioneering work at the local asylum. A compelling investigation into human minds and hearts.
“The richness of Moss’s work is astonishing. Few writers demonstrate such quietly magisterial command of the rocky territories of both the heart and mind.”
Lucy Scholes, Independent
It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan (Chatto & Windus)
Consultant neurologist O’Sullivan strips away the taboos that surround psychosomatic illness via seven personal stories of imagined ailments, accompanied by an informative overview of our responses to delusion and hysteria. An extraordinary array of unexpected connections and malfunctions between the mind and body.
“Doctors’ tales of their patients’ weirder afflictions have been popular since Oliver Sacks… Few of them, however, are as bizarre or unsettling as those described in this extraordinary and extraordinarily compassionate book.”
James McConnachie, Sunday Times
Playthings by Alex Phelby (Galley Beggar Press)
German judge Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, first published in 1903, remains a hugely influential case of self-diagnosis of the condition that became known as paranoid schizophrenia. Here Phelby imagines Schreber’s final illness and confinement, and examines the roots of the greatest ills of modern society.
“Throughout this compelling novel the space between reader and Schreber becomes a sombre reminder of how alone we all are.”
Chris Power, Guardian
The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink (Picador)
In 1990, two weeks before the release of his GSCE results, Cathy Rentzenbrink’s brother Matty was knocked down by a car and went into a coma from which he would never recover. After eight years of silent suffering, she and her parents would have to make the unthinkable decision to let him go. A heartbreaking yet uplifting memoir of agonising and drawn-out loss; a triumph of love and compassion.
“I never knew a story of grief could have so much joy in it.”
NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman (Allen & Unwin)
A groundbreaking study of autism, from the earliest research into the condition to the contemporary mapping of ‘neurodiversity’ that aims to build a better understanding of learning and social differences. Already a winner of the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, and a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, this is an enlightening examination of a complex spectrum of brain disorders.
“Brilliant and sparklingly humane.”
Stephen Poole, Guardian
This year’s chair of judges, author, journalist and broadcaster Baroness Joan Bakewell is joined by Frances Balkwill, Professor of Cancer Biology at Barts Cancer Institute; writer, columnist and salonnière Damian Barr; novelist Tessa Hadley; and journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera.
The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize 2016, announced on 25 April, was Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s All in Your Head.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.