The 2015 winner of the perhaps not so well known “Wellcome Book Prize” has just been announced from its shortlist. Established all the way back in 1936, the Trust is the UK’s largest non-governmental source of funds for biomedical research, and with its endowment of £18 billion, the foundation has been supporting areas such as the Human Genome Project, antimalarial drugs, treatments for bulimia nervosa, etc etc, as well as offering this “Prize for the incurably curious”, celebrating the best new books that deal with some aspect of medicine, health or illness.
Appropriately, perhaps, author of “The Curious Incident…”, Mark Haddon, was one of this year’s judges, along with Chair Bill Bryson, who was pleased to predict that each of the 6 titles on the short list “blend exquisite writing with scientific rigour and personal experience, making medical science accessible in six very different ways”. Previous winners include Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (high on the wish list, an incredible story that extraordinarily comes to light in the late 1990s) and Andrea Gillies’s “Keeper: Living with Nancy – A Journey into Alzheimer’s” (read, highly recommended, 9/10).
Back to this year, and a shortlist that looked like this :
“The Iceberg” by Marion Coutts (read, 8/10), “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery” by Henry Marsh (read, 10/10), “Bodies of Light” by Sarah Moss, “The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being” by Alice Roberts, “My Age of Anxiety” by Scott Stossel, and “All My Puny Sorrows” by Miriam Toews.
I confess to many shortcomings when it comes to reading nonfiction. Fully admit to sticking to the fictional world more often than not, and remember quite distinctly being given short shrift in a café once by an acquaintance looking down her nose at a recently created book group and saying sniffily, “Oh I only read biographies and nonfiction” in a way that suggested anything else just wasn’t highbrow enough… So feel quite elevated at having already read two of these shortlisted works, including the previously reviewed non X-rated ‘confessions of a brain surgeon’ – and Bill Bryson’s potted depictions of all six books definitely make you want to drop everything and explore some more.
This year’s winner was announced yesterday, and goes to Marion Coutts for her memoir “The Iceberg”. I can see how it has pipped Henry Marsh to the post: it’s impossible to contemplate having to deal with the devastating news that a spouse, father of your very young child, has been diagnosed with a brain tumour that is inexorably going to rob all speech and language from a man whose entire life revolves around putting words and thoughts on paper as illustrator and chief art critic of The Independent, and his wife describes this deadly misadventure with incredible force.
That his life was celebrated by so many is beautifully summed up in Kevin Jackson’s obituary in 2011, and this book is further testimony to the difficulties of facing up to what sometimes seems senseless and far too cruel a destiny when a life is cut tragically short.
What struck me most while reading this testimony by Tom’s wife, Marion, is the simmering rawness in this account of living day by cataclysmic day with the ongoing situation. It’s quite harrowing, and you have to hope it is cathartic for the author, as it all too clearly strips away the layers as the assault hits in (“I have been unable to read since this began and it is getting worse. My eyes can’t focus, they skit across, landing on words and skimming them for meaning as if they were simply a platform for something else more important. Fiction is impossible. Why would you want to make anything up?…I have heard it said that books can help in dark times but I don’t do it. In my heart I doubt it”. The irony is not lost in that the couple’s then 18-month old son is just starting to grapple with the intricacies of language, and Tom’s own written account of “what happens when words slip away” is almost impossible to read to the end.
Yet fairly early on in her writing, Marion states this: “He is dying. Yet within the context of us, this fact can seem irrelevant… He loves. He is loved. He will be loved. Being with a long-time love is having the shape and extended sweep of their person annexed to yours…It is as near as thinking, as regular as breathing…its pleasure derives precisely from the ambivalence of not knowing where the edges lie, yet feeling at home”. This book is a painful and no-holes-barred depiction of living a certain hell on earth, yet the message it clearly portrays is a celebration of a man deeply and unforgettably loved during his sadly curtailed lifetime.
Read in April 2015.
Rating : 8/10
“The Iceberg” : Winner of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2015, shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2014, longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award 2014