I am approaching the end of shadowing this year’s Wellcome Book Prize, and I have followed two books which explore gender as the central theme (The Trauma Cleaner and Amateur) with two books primarily concerned with mental health. ‘Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery’ by Arnold Thomas Fanning is a memoir which outlines his experience of bipolar disorder in the late 1990s. Having first suffered from depression at the age of 20 following the death of his mother, he had a breakdown in his late twenties while living in Dublin after quitting his job to concentrate on writing in 1997. He was hospitalised several times and also spent time homeless in London amid periods of mania. The narrative has been pieced together from his own fragmented memories, medical records and interviews with those who were involved at the time. The opening section is a frank stream of consciousness told in the second person while the rest of the narrative is told primarily in the present tense.
Rebecca suggested that ‘Mind on Fire’ might work better as a novel. For me, the power of the opening monologue suggests that Fanning’s talent as a playwright could see him adapt this for the stage in some form. As a memoir, ‘Mind on Fire’ is still a very intense account which conveys a vivid and unflinching sense of what it is like to be in that state of mind and how completely debilitating it is. Among the other shortlisted titles, it sits somewhere in the middle of my personal preferences.
‘Murmur’ by Will Eaves imagines how Alec Pryor, a fictional interpretation of mathematician Alan Turing, would have responded to the state punishment of chemical castration imposed on him following his conviction for gross indecency. As the hormone “treatment” starts to take effect, the prose becomes increasingly difficult to follow, reflecting Alec’s state of mind as a muddle of dreams and reflections on the nature of consciousness. A series of letters to and from the woman he almost married (June Wilson in the book, Joan Clark in real life) are also interspersed throughout. The dream sequences in particular are often very abstract and philosophical, and there are some interesting interpretations to be made, especially with regards to mirroring, transformation and Turing’s pioneering work on algorithms, AI and belief that machines could develop consciousness.
As a depiction of Turing’s life and state of mind, ‘Murmur’ is a surreal and very moving literary experiment. However, I’m also aware that my enjoyment of ‘Murmur’ probably stems from what I already knew about Turing, whereas it would probably be entirely incomprehensible to someone who isn’t familiar with the history behind the fiction. It has been shortlisted for numerous other prizes and I think it could be a strong contender for winning the overall Wellcome Book Prize, although Sight by Jessie Greengrass remains my favourite novel on the longlist.
I will post my final shortlist review of ‘Heart’ by Sandeep Jauhar on Wednesday as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. The winner will be announced on Wednesday 1st May – which book do you want to see win the prize?