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: Signs for Lost Children


Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss, tells the story of Tom and Ally, a newly married couple who spend much of the first six months of their marriage on opposite sides of the world. Set in the 1880s it is an exploration of relationships and the impact these have on individuals who must live within societies suspicious of change. It looks at travel and how this can affect those open to new cultures and ideas. It looks at sanity and what this even means.

Ally is a qualified medical doctor, one of only a few females at the time who managed to find an institution willing to train and offer the qualification to women. Many still frowned at the very idea of a woman doctor, believing them incapable of the rational thought required by the discipline.

Ally has chosen to work voluntarily at an asylum for those classified as insane. Her mother accuses her of wasting the efforts and support of so many who helped her to gain her qualification, believing that she should be treating the poor who cannot afford to pay for medical care. Ally’s mother is a forceful woman whose constant criticisms have had a powerful and damaging influence on her daughter. Ally’s father is an enigmatic artist who used and leant her out as a model from a young age.

Tom is an engineer who designs and supervises the building of lighthouses. He knew when he married Ally that, within weeks, he would be required to travel to Japan for his employer. He understands that Ally has her own career and, unlike many of his peers, accepts that she will not spend her life pandering to his needs. He respects her outlook and believes her strong due to her achievements. The only members of his wife’s family he has met are her kindly aunt and uncle who supported her through her medical training. They have advised him to keep Ally away from her mother.

Tom and Ally have a few short and happy weeks together in his cottage in Cornwall before he must set sail for Japan. He cannot speak the language so relies on a guide and interpreter named Makoto, a fellow engineer who has spent time in Britain, and on books he has read which help him navigate the nuances of Japanese culture. Tom soon becomes enamoured with Japan, seeking to understand their customs and ways of thinking. He observes and ponders how his home country must look to the Japanese:

“Tom wants to see Britain from behind Makoto’s eyes, to see the strange and unnatural things to which he himself and everyone he knows is forever blind.”

“The mind reaches for similitude, making the new in the image of the familiar.”

While Tom is exploring not just this new and strange country but also his reaction to it, especially compared to the many foreigners who try to live as they would at home, Ally is working on the women’s wards at the Truro Asylum. Here she faces prejudices from staff as well as the challenge of dealing with patients. She wishes to study what drives people to insanity, and to discover if the process can be reversed. What she finds is that the asylum, even with its many flaws, can be a sanctuary from the women’s home life where abuse of all kinds is rife. What is less clear is how she could orchestrate change when it is the men who pay for and dictate policy, and who commit these women when their behaviour is deemed unacceptable.

With Tom away, Ally’s mother puts pressure on her to spend the months of separation in Manchester covering for a doctor in need of rest. When events at the asylum force Ally to leave she capitulates, moving north to the matriarch whose voice is forever in her head. Despite Ally’s good work amongst the poor she finds home life an unmitigated strain. She begins to questions her own sanity.

By the time Tom returns both he and his wife have been markedly changed. They are unaware of how the other has been affected by their recent experiences; how could they when they were not there?

The story flows with a poignant and compelling story of people, told in language rich with imagery. It takes the reader into the heart of each location, empathising with the loneliness, desires and ambitions of the protagonists. Its scope and depth urge the reader to pause and consider many wider issues.

This is a book that will linger. An intelligent, beautiful tale that I recommend you read.