Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shortlist revealed

Paul Kalanithi’s memoir could become first posthumous work to win the prize

Wellcome Book Prize judges Di Speirs, Simon Baron-Cohen, Val McDermid, Tim Lewens and Gemma Cairney

Wellcome Book Prize judges Di Speirs, Simon Baron-Cohen, Val McDermid, Tim Lewens and Gemma Cairney

 

The shortlist for the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize has been announced today. David France, Paul Kalanithi, Maylis de Kerangal, Sarah Moss, Siddhartha Mukherjee and Ed Yong all remain in the running for the £30,000 prize, which celebrates exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction that engage with the topics of health and medicine and the many ways they touch our lives.

“What these six challenging, diverse and enriching titles have in common is their insight into what it means to be human,” said Val McDermid, chair of judges and celebrated Scottish crime writer as she revealed the shortlist at the London Book Fair this morning. “Together they form a mosaic that illuminates our relationship with health and medicine. It spans our origins, our deaths and much that lies between, from activism to acts of human kindness.”

The judging panel praised both the extraordinary variety of writing and the diversity of subjects, from questions of humanity and mortality to the microscopic components of our body.

The full 2017 Wellcome Book Prize shortlist is:

How to Survive a Plague by David France (USA) Picador
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (USA) The Bodley Head
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (France) translated by Jessica Moore MacLehose Press
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (UK) Granta Books
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (USA) The Bodley Head
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (UK) The Bodley Head

The two fiction contenders, The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss and Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, both celebrate and interrogate the intricacies of modern-day healthcare systems.

Moss explores a family’s experience of navigating the NHS as they come to terms with their child’s unexplained medical condition, and de Kerangal tells the 24-hour story of a heart transplant, from fatal crash to life-saving operation. Mend the Living is the first text in translation to be shortlisted for the prize, and de Kerangal is the first French author to be shortlisted.

This year’s four non-fiction titles shine a light on the human stories behind scientific developments and medical care, as well as opening a door to extraordinary new worlds.

Paul Kalanithi’s life-affirming memoir When Breath Becomes Air chronicles his transformation from medical student to neurosurgeon, patient and father before his sad death while working on this book. It is the first posthumously published title to be in contention for the prize.

How to Survive a Plague by David France is the powerful story of the 1980s AIDS epidemic and the bravery of the activists, many facing their own life-or-death struggles, who campaigned for scientific research to help develop accessible, effective treatment.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene highlights the relevance of genetics within everyday life and interrogates concerns with our growing ability to alter the human genome. Woven within this narrative is an intimate story of Mukherjee’s own family and its recurring pattern of mental illness.

I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong’s debut, provides a page-turning exploration of the body’s 40 trillion microbes, and how our microscopic companions not only sculpt our organs, protect us from diseases and guide our behaviour, but also hold the key to understanding all life on Earth.

There are two previously shortlisted authors in the running for this year’s prize: Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies, 2011) and Sarah Moss, who is recognised for the third consecutive year (Bodies of Light, 2015; Signs for Lost Children, 2016).

The winner will be announced on April 24th at the Wellcome Collection.

Irish doctor Suzanne O’Sullivan won the prize last year for It’s All in Your Head. Previous winners include Marion Coutts for The Iceberg in 2015, Andrew Solomon for Far from the Tree in 2014, Thomas Wright for Circulation in 2012, Alice LaPlante for Turn of Mind in 2011, Rebecca Skloot for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010 and Andrea Gillies for Keeper: Living with Nancy – a journey into Alzheimer’s in 2009.

Judges’ quotes on the shortlist

Val McDermid on How to Survive a Plague by David France
“How AIDS was transformed from a killer plague to a viral infection that can be treated with considerable success is one of the most extraordinary narratives in modern medicine, demonstrating a ground-breaking collaboration between activists and researchers. This is a profoundly human story of persistence, determination and innovation - and sometimes intense frustration - that could never have happened without fierce commitment.”

Val McDermid on When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
“Mortality faces us all, and its contemplation is a key part of our humanity; few books pack in as many diverse insights as this. First comes the gripping dissection of the demands and satisfactions of a career in neurosurgery. Then the disastrous diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. Intensely moving but remarkably unsentimental, this is an intellectually, revelatory and emotionally devastating read.”

Di Speirs on Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal trans. Jessica Moore
“Mend the Living is a brave book, a highly original and ambitious novel which traces the medical drama and emotional turmoil of a heart transplant in daring, lyrical prose. Concentrated across the span of a single day, Maylis de Kerangal succeeds in telling a gripping, cinematic story while revealing the intricate care, the tensions and the heartbreak of life-saving medical science.”

Gemma Cairney on The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
“In The Tidal Zone, Sarah Moss poses big questions about life, mortality, recovery, parenthood and love as the Goldschmidt family anxiously surround their teenage daughter Miriam in hospital. With intelligent characterisation and quiet observations, harsh notes on reality, Moss creates a moving and poetic investigation of modern family life at a time of personal tragedy. It’s a stunning and different novel by an immensely talented writer.”

Simon Baron-Cohen on The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
“How can one write about the field of genetics in an intimate way? Mukherjee achieves this by beautifully weaving together his own family history of schizophrenia, in his homeland of India, with the history of the gene, its discovery, its horrific abuse during Nazi eugenics, and the rapid change in technology such that we can now read a person’s complete genome for $1,000. Compelling reading.”

Tim Lewens on I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
“Ed Yong’s magnificent book shows us that microbes need not be malevolent: they play crucial roles in maintaining us in health as well as in bringing sickness. Microbes are teaching us that every individual organism is an ecosystem in its own right, and Yong explores the profound consequences this has for traditional pictures of evolution, ecology and ultimately for identity.”

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