The Wellcome Book Prize longlist for 2019 has been announced, celebrating the many ways in which literature can illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness.
The longlist of twelve titles was selected by a judging panel chaired by author Elif Shafak with Jon Day, Viv Groskop, Kevin Fong and Rick Edwards.
- Amateur: A true story about what makes a man by Thomas Page McBee Non-fiction
“Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence. Through his experience of boxing – learning to get hit, and to hit back; wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym; confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body – McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes and the limitations of conventional masculinity.”
- Astroturf by Matthew Sperling Fiction
“At 30, Ned is in a rut. His girlfriend has dumped him, his job is boring and he lives in a dismal bedsit. While others around him climb the property ladder and get ahead, he seems destined to remain one of life’s plodders. Encouraged by a friend to try using steriods to bulk up his frame, Ned is thrilled to discover a new vitality within himself. Physical changes are only the beginning: his mental state is clearer, he feels more confident and, most thrillingly of all, friends and lovers alike seem compelled by this new improved Ned. Using his knowledge of the murky yet surprising online world of steroids, Ned begins to build a business and discovers that his talents can take him further than he ever thought possible. But when is new life is threatened, he finds himself doing things he never would have dared to do before. And it all seems to be going fine.”
- Educated by Tara Westover Non-fiction
“Tara Westover grew up preparing for the End of Days, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. She spent her summers bottling peaches and her winters rotating emergency supplies, hoping that when the World of Men failed, her family would continue on, unaffected. She hadn’t been registered for a birth certificate. She had no school records because she’d never set foot in a classroom, and no medical records because her father didn’t believe in doctors or hospitals. According to the state and federal government, she didn’t exist. As she grew older, her father became more radical, and her brother, more violent. At sixteen Tara decided to educate herself. Her struggle for knowledge would take her far from her Idaho mountains, over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d travelled too far.”
- Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi Fiction
“Narrated from the perspectives of the various selves within Ada, and based in the author’s realities, ‘Freshwater’ explores the metaphysics of identity and being.”
- Heart: a History by Sandeep Jauhar Non-fiction
“A doctor’s inspiring obsession with the heart, seamlessly combining history, gripping scenes from the operating theatre and a moving personal story.”
- Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery by Arnold Thomas Fanning Non-fiction
“Arnold Thomas Fanning had his first experience of depression during adolescence, following the death of his mother. Some ten years later, an up-and-coming playwright, he was overcome by mania and delusions. Thus began a terrible period in which he was often suicidal, increasingly disconnected from family and friends, sometimes in trouble with the law, and homeless in London. Drawing on his own memories, the recollections of people who knew him when he was at his worst, and medical and police records, Arnold Thomas Fanning has produced a beautifully written, devastatingly intense account of madness – and recovery, to the point where he has not had any serious illness for over a decade and has become an acclaimed playwright.”
- Murmur by Will Eaves Fiction
“Murmur is an original imagining of how the mathematician Alan Turing may have responded to the punishment imposed on him by the state – chemical castration – following his conviction for gross indecency. Alan Turing was more than just a member of the team that cracked the wartime Enigma code using a machine akin to an early computer, impressive though this achievement may be. He was a mathematician and theoretical biologist who pioneered ideas on artificial intelligence.”
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh Fiction
“A shocking, hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation, aided and abetted by one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature. Our narrator has many of the advantages of life, on the surface. Young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, she lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like everything else, by her inheritance. But there is a vacuum at the heart of things, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents in college, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her alleged best friend. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?”
- Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication by Thomas Abraham Non-fiction
“Polio is still rife in poorer parts of the world. This is a rare look inside the global effort to tackle this potentially deadly disease, against the odds.”
- Sight by Jessie Greengrass Fiction
“In ‘Sight’ a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, while remembering the death of her own mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother. Woven among these personal recollections are significant events in medical history: Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of the X-ray and his production of an image of his wife’s hand; Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and the work that he did with his daughter, Anna; John Hunter’s attempts to set surgery on a scientific footing and his work, as a collaborator with his brother William and the artist Jan van Rymsdyk, on the anatomy of pregnant bodies. What emerges is the realisation that while the search for understanding might not lead us to an absolute truth, it is an end in itself.”
- The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein Non-fiction
“Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife. But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less. A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put out for 40 years. A man who bled quietly to death in his loungeroom. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose.”
- This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein Non-fiction
“In 2014 I moved back to the United States after living abroad for 14 years, my whole adult life, because my father was dying. Six weeks after I arrived in New York City, my father died. Six months after that I learned that I too was a carrier of the gene that caused the cancer that had killed him. When Jean Hannah Edelstein’s world overturned she was forced to confront some of the big questions: how do we cope with grief? How does life change when we realise we’re not invincible? Does knowing our likely fate make it harder or easier to face the future?”
Three debut novels appear on this year’s longlist: Sight, Freshwater and Astroturf. The two further novels look at what great bodily change can do to a person’s mind.
Memoirs dominate the seven non-fiction titles on the list, sharing stories including mortality, modern masculinity and attitudes towards medical innovation.
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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