Wellcome Book Prize announces 2017 shortlist

Published

The shortlist for the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize was 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.

The list of six titles was revealed by Chair of Judges and celebrated Scottish crime writer Val McDermid in a press conference at the London Book Fair this morning.

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
When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi
Mend the Living’ by Maylis de Kerangal
The Tidal Zone’ by Sarah Moss
The Gene’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee
I Contain Multitudes’ by Ed Yong

The two fiction contenders on the 2017 shortlist – ‘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 Wellcome Book 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 book, 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 at an evening ceremony on Monday 24 April at Wellcome Collection.

Val McDermid commented on behalf of the judging panel:

“What these six challenging, diverse and enriching titles have in common is their insight into what it means to be human. 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.”

Kirty Topiwala, Publisher at Wellcome Collection and Wellcome Book Prize Manager, said:

“With so many new books now being published in this area, the quality of this selection is necessarily high, and we are immensely proud of this year’s superb shortlist. Each of these books offers the reader something different, but they all capture the acute pleasures and pains of being human.”

Quotes from the judging panel on the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize 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.”

Book jacket images and author photographs can be found here. Further information about the shortlisted titles and authors can be found on wellcomebookprize.org and on Twitter @wellcomebkprize. For all press enquiries, including interview requests, please contact Midas Public Relations.

Hannah McMillan: hannah.mcmillan@midaspr.co.uk / 020 7361 7860 / 07971 086649