Spanning human origins, national health services, microbial life forms and death, the shortlist for the 2017 Wellcome Book prize has been hailed as one that will “shift perceptions” by chair Val McDermid.
Announcing the six books in contention for the award, which pits fiction against non-fiction, McDermid told the Guardian: “The key thing about these books is that they draw people in to something they otherwise might find a bit scary to read about. There will be people who read one of the books on this list and it will change their lives.”
This year could also see the first posthumous winner of the £30,000 prize, if it goes to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi was training to be a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and wrote this memoir in his final months. Since publication it has won a host of fans, including Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who wrote in a blog: “I’m usually not one for tear-jerkers about death and dying … But this book definitely earned my admiration – and tears.”
Two novels are in contention for the award, which is to books that deal with medicine, health or illness. In Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone, a family navigates the NHS as it comes to terms with a child’s unexplained illness, while in the first translated work to be shortlisted, Mend the Living, Maylis de Kerangal tells the story of a heart transplant, centred on the organ donor and his family. Both books, the judges said, “celebrate and interrogate” the intricacies of modern-day healthcare systems.
One debut features on the list: Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, which explores the 40 trillion microbes in the human body, and how they affect us and offer a key to understanding life on Earth.
Moss has been shortlisted for the prize before, in 2015, as has Siddhartha Mukherjee, who is nominated again this year for The Gene. His book interweaves a narrative about the relevance of genetics and altering the human genome with the story of the reoccurring mental illness that have affected Mukherjee’s own family. McDermid said the human scale of the book helped convey complex issues to a non-specialist audience: “One of the ways we communicate is to bring things down to a human level and it’s important for science is to communicate to non-scientists.”
Also on the list is How to Survive a Plague, David France’s exploration of the 1980s Aids epidemic and the bravery of activists who fought for accessible and effective treatments, many of whom while facing their own struggles with HIV and Aids-related illnesses. “His book deals with the power of patient advocacy in a way that we have never seen before, even though it is only recent history,” McDermid said.
Joining her to judge the prize were Cambridge professors Simon Baron-Cohen and Tim Lewens, broadcaster Gemma Cairney and radio producer Di Speirs. Past winners include Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s All In Your Head and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Rebecca Lacks. The winner of the 2017 award will announced on 24 April.
The full 2017 Wellcome book prize shortlist is:
How to Survive a Plague by David France (USA) Picador, Pan Macmillan
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (France) and translated by Jessica Moore, MacLehose Press
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (UK), Granta Books
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (UK), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House