Yesterday, I went to an event at the Wellcome Collection in London to hear the six authors nominated for this year’s Wellcome Book Prize discuss their shortlisted books. The annual award is open to works of fiction and non-fiction which engage with some aspect of health, illness or medicine, or “the ultimate human subject” as chair Anne Karpf said in her introduction.
The books on this year’s shortlist are:
- Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
- The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink
- NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman
- Playthings by Alex Pheby
- It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan
- The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
First up was Amy Liptrot, author of The Outrun which is her memoir about returning to Orkney at the age of thirty after spending a decade in London where she became addicted to alcohol. She spoke about the impact of her father’s mental illness on her life and the importance of working on the Orkney landscape rather than just walking through it in terms of developing a connection with the place. Whereas many might expect her to write about Orkney as “an idealised island paradise” compared to the chaos of her life in London, she found that the internet and technology helped increase her engagement with nature during her recovery.
Cathy Rentzenbrink‘s book The Last Act of Love is another very personal memoir about her sixteen-year-old brother Matty, who suffered catastrophic head injuries after a hit-and-run accident on the way home from a party in 1990. He was left in a permanent vegetative state for eight years until the courts gave his family permission to withdraw his feeding tube and allow him to die, a process which took thirteen agonising days. Rentzenbrink spoke very movingly about having a “miracle mindset” after Matty unexpectedly survived each critical stage after the accident and how it is technically easy to keep someone medically alive, even though the legal and ethical frameworks have yet to catch up.
Playthings by Alex Pheby is one of two books on the shortlist which I hadn’t heard of before. It is a fictionalised account of the life of Paul Schreber, a retired German judge who suffered three mental breakdowns and whose case was explored by Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud in their studies. The story of Schreber’s third breakdown is told here after his wife Sabine has a stroke. Pheby came across Schreber’s memoirs published in 1903 while working as a librarian and said that he wanted to explore the parts of Schreber’s story which hadn’t previously been told properly, such as questions about gender issues.
I enjoyed reading Sarah Moss‘ novel Night Waking and her travel memoir Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland last year. ‘Bodies of Light’, the sequel to ‘Night Waking’ was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize last year followed by the third book in the trilogy Signs for Lost Children. In ‘Night Waking’, Anna comes across letters written by May, a nurse in the 1870s on the remote Scottish island of Colsay. In the latest book, May’s sister Ally begins working as a doctor at the Truro asylum in the 1880s while her husband Tom travels to Japan to build lighthouses. Moss took some historical liberties in that no female doctors were known to be working in asylums at that time. She spoke about the challenge of researching madness in an era before psychoanalysis and that many of the issues in Ally’s story are still relevant today such as who should pay for healthcare.
It’s All in Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan is the other book on the list along with ‘Playthings’ which is completely new to me. The title suggests that the book might be about time-wasting hypochondriacs. However, it is an account of what happens to patients who have real psychosomatic symptoms which cannot be medically explained, informed by O’Sullivan’s work as a consultant neurologist specialising in epilepsy. She spoke about how neurologists are not trained to deal with psychologically-induced symptoms and how debilitating these can be for patients. Instead, the unfortunate reality is that clinical medicine has yet to catch up with technology in this area.
NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently by Steve Silberman won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction last year and was described by Karpf as “an epic, sprawling revisionist history of autism”. The book explores the work of Hans Asperger who recognised autism in “high-functioning adults” and Leo Kanner who believed that autism was a condition confined to childhood. As a journalist for WIRED magazine, Silberman began his research after interviewing Silicon Valley “geeks” who were on the autism spectrum themselves or had children who were. He is therefore critical of Kanner’s perspective and made a strong case in favour of the concept of neurodiversity and the idea that autism is a spectrum condition in both children and adults.
After the authors spoke about their books individually, questions were posed to them in pairs. Steve Silberman and Suzanne O’Sullivan gave their thoughts about how their historical categories of patients might be viewed in the future with O’Sullivan making it clear that her book doesn’t provide answers while Silberman tried to make “the least damaging assumption” about people with autism. Alex Pheby and Sarah Moss discussed the idea of literary trickery to engage readers on the subject of those who are hidden from the rest of society. Amy Liptrot and Cathy Rentzenbrink talked about the idea of self-pity in memoirs about difficult events. Liptrot recently reread her diaries from the period of her life covered in ‘The Outrun’ which reassured her that she hadn’t been exaggerating and that she no longer feels the way she did then. Rentzenbrink gave her perspective on some of the comments she received about her book: no trace of self-pity (“my book screams of self-pity, if what happened to me had happened to someone else, I would feel sorry for them”), brave (“reckless”) and honest (“why do it any other way?”).
The Wellcome Book Prize is one of a very small number of awards which features both fiction and non-fiction in one shortlist rather than separating them into different categories. I really enjoyed hearing the authors discuss such a fascinating collection of books about a diverse range of human experiences. Having recently read ‘Far From the Tree’ by Andrew Solomon (review coming next month), which won the Prize in 2014, I am keen to start reading more books from present and past shortlists.
The winner will be announced tomorrow on Monday 25th April. Have you read any of the shortlisted books? Who do you think will win?