Reading the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist


At the beginning of the summer, thanks to a competition run by Latitude Festival on Instagram, I was fortunate enough to win a complete set of the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize shortlist. I had only read one of these books previously, ‘Playthings’ by Alex Pheby. When another book on the list, ‘The Outrun’ by Amy Lipcot, subsequently won the Wainwright Prize I decided to abandon my reading plans for the summer – which had included finally getting round to reading ‘War and Peace’ – and work my way through this shortlist. It has been a rewarding experience.

My daughter is a second year medical student with a particular interest in neurology. She and her friends treated themselves to a visit to the Wellcome Collection in London at the end of the academic year, something I also hope to do in the future. She read several of the books alongside me and we have enjoyed discussing the topics explored.

“The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award, open to new works of fiction or non-fiction. To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. This can cover many genres of writing – including crime, romance, popular science, sci fi and history.

At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”

My own interest is in psychology, a subject I have studied on line in recent years thanks to FutureLearn. Armed with this knowledge I eagerly delved in. You may click on each title below to read my reviews.

Playthings by Alex Pheby

Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

These books provided me with an opportunity to read genres that I would not normally choose. Although I do carefully select a small number of non fiction titles each year, I tend to avoid memoirs. I am glad that I was open to the contents of each and every one of the books on this list. I learned from them all.

The winner of the prize was ‘It’s All In Your Head’ by Suzanne O’Sullivan. When I posted my review I discovered that this was a controversial choice. For the first time I received negative feedback from sufferers of the disorders discussed who felt that the author was belittling their ailments by suggesting they were psychosomatic. I found their responses particularly ironic as this is exactly the problem she wrote the book to counter – the continuing and unreasonable stigma associated with psychosomatic illness.

Notwithstanding my brush with angry, on line readers, I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of reading a complete book prize shortlist. So enamoured was I with the quality of the writing I have set myself the challenge of doing it again. In amongst my other planned posts in the coming months you may look out for reviews of those works currently vying for the 2016 Guardian Not The Booker Prize. I will also be reading the 2015 Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, which has been sitting on my shelves tempting me since last year.

Book Review: It’s All in Your Head


It’s All in Your Head, by Suzanne O’Sullivan, is subtitled True Stories of Imaginary Illness. I found this a tad disingenuous. The case studies that make up a large portion of the text cover a variety of psychosomatic illnesses and are each anything but imaginary. The patients suffer paralysis, debilitating pain, and, because it is the author’s speciality and therefore what she is most often consulted about, seizures that are regularly mistaken for epilepsy. When extensive and detailed tests reveal that there are no physical symptoms to confirm this, or any other physical diagnosis, too many people, some doctors included, wrongly assume that the patient is fantasizing about problems that do not exist. They do, and accepting their existence is vital for the patient’s wellbeing and future treatment.

The author is a consultant neurologist. She starts by explaining her medical background, the ailments she encounters, and the broad therapies recommended. She points out that psychosomatic illnesses occur worldwide, across all cultures and classes. Cases have been documented, albeit under changing names, for centuries. They cost health services billions of pounds each year. They are widely regarded as not real.

Having explained some of the terms that she will use throughout the text she then starts to introduce the reader to particular patients. Their case studies are fascinating. Alongside are notes on background and medical research, as well as the changing attitudes to such maladies across time. These patients cannot just ‘get over it’, but they do need to accept that their problems are not caused by a physical anomaly that can be treated surgically or controlled by drugs. What is required is psychiatric help, and this comes with all the negative connotations that society continues to heap on the mentally unwell.

Such attitudes make telling a patient that their serious, physical problems have psychological roots a challenge. Despite the ubiquity of diagnosis, patients struggle to accept that treatment will not come in the form of a physical intervention or medication. They want an explanation that does not put the onus on them. Friends and colleagues are rarely sympathetic when a problem is regarded as self inflicted.

Despite covering some complex, medical topics the writing remains accessible. I did find my concentration wavering slightly over some of the more detailed sections but on rereading all became clear. What I enjoyed most was getting to know the patients whose lives had been altered so radically by their illness. Many struggled to accept that their personally researched diagnosis was incorrect. Most resisted the notion that their physical ailments could be cured with psychiatric help.

This is an important subject that deserves wider recognition and acceptance. A book such as this can go a long way towards engendering empathy for sufferers of the many illnesses for which there is no medical explanation – IBS, CFS, fibromyalgia, food intolerance to name but a few. If the stigma associated with psychosomatic illness could be lessened, patients may be more open to accepting the only treatment likely to improve their quality of life. The connection between mind and body may not be well understood, but effects are real and deserve respectful consideration.