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Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Shortlist Revealed

Established in 2009, the Wellcome Book Prize shines a spotlight on exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction that focus on the topics of health and medicine, and the ways they touch people’s lives.

In this year's prize 140 titles were submitted, six were selected, and the Chair of Judges celebrated Scottish crime writer Val McDermid revealed these shortlisted titles at the London Book Fair on 14 March.

Along with McDermid, the judging panel included Books Editor for BBC Radio Di Spiers, BBC radio presenter Gemma Cairney, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology Simon Baron-Cohen, and Professor of Philosophy of Science Tim Lewens.

The chosen titles range massively in genre and approach, McDermid noted that “the shortlist spans our origins, our deaths and much that lies between, from activism to acts of human kindness”.

There are two fiction titles on the list, both of which delve into the complexity of modern healthcare systems, while the four non-fiction books give us a glimpse at the human experience of medicine as well as microhistories of scientific and medical development. Each of these titles are in the running for the £30,000 prize, which will be announced on 24 April.

The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist is an excellent starting point for all readers who wish to explore, medicine, science and the human condition.

How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague tells of the extraordinary transformation of the AIDS virus from a deadly epidemic to a manageable disease. It follows the campaigners and activists, many of whom were struggling with the virus themselves, and their work to improve education, coordinate with medical researchers, and ultimately halt the AIDS epidemic. Their work has resulted in 15.8 million people who are alive today thanks to their anti-AIDS drugs. France’s book provides unparalleled insight into the characters that were part of this fight, illustrating their persistence and commitment to changing the landscape of modern medicine.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breathe Becomes Air is the memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon who was struggling with the pressures of the medical profession and the desire to live a meaningful life, before he was suddenly diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The book chronicles his transition from doctor to patient and so takes in a captivating breadth of perspective on sickness and mortality. Kalanithi’s story is illuminating and devastating but never sentimental.

It is the first posthumously published title to be shortlisted for the prize.

Mend the Living

Mend the Living is a fascinating and highly original medical drama, and the first of the two fiction books on this list. It follows the 24-hour story of a heart transplant, beginning with a fatal crash and ending with a life-saving operation. It is the first translated title, and de Kerangal is the first French author, to be in contention for the prize. The book is cinematic in style, capturing the anguish and emotional turmoil that takes one heart from one person to another.

The Tidal Zone

The second fiction entry to the shortlist, Sarah Moss has written an unflinching look at the experience of the sudden and devastating sickness of a loved one. Tidal Zone centers on Adam, a stay-at-home dad with a normal and happy life, until one day he gets a call to say his 15-year-old daughter has collapsed and is not breathing. What follows is a blunt look at the frustrations of navigating healthcare systems, as well as the experience of living a mundane life in the midst of a trauma. Moss is brilliant in her characterization, and her quiet but harsh depiction of personal tragedy.

The Gene

Siddhartha Mukherjee has created a historical epic centered on the gene. This microhistory follows the discovery of the gene in an obscure Augustinian monastery in 1856, to its role in the theory of evolution, to its horrifying part in the Nazi eugenics program. Interwoven with all of this is Mukherjee’s own moving family history with schizophrenia. It’s compelling and comprehensive reading of “the birth, growth and the future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas.”

I Contain Multitudes

In I Contain Multitudes Ed Yong introduces us to the entire world, teeming with life, that exists inside each of us. These microbe colonies play a crucial role in our health as well as our sickness. This is a book that will radically change your perspective on the world around you and how you see yourself, as it illustrates the interconnected and interdependent reality of life. It is a groundbreaking and enchantingly informative read, showing us the world of the microbe and the scientists at the front lines of investigating it.

I love to read, cook, and travel. My favourite books are anything Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, but I also love non-fiction history and self-help.