The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award, open to works of fiction and non-fiction which to be eligible must have a theme which focuses on health, illness or medicine. The last of our reviews of the shortlisted texts looks at Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss. The winner will be announced next week.  

Bodies of Light is a psychological historical fiction, an exploration of familial and societal life in nineteenth century Britain. Ally, intelligent and studious, is ever searching for approval and is left emotionally fragile and guilt ridden when she never receives it from her mother Elizabeth, a zealous religious do-gooder who expends her energy on social activism rather than motherhood.

The novel touches on the cyclical nature of human behaviour, revealing in its multi-generational focus, how Elizabeth inflicts the same restrictions and punishments on her daughters that she experienced herself as a child. Elizabeth champions control and virtue over warmth and familial connection, with detrimental impact on body and mind of those in her charge.

The historical depth of Bodies of Light seems well researched and developed, we learn about social and legal struggles that women faced and experience Ally triumph when she becomes one of the first female physicians in Britain, herself and her peers perhaps being modeled on the Edinburgh Seven, the first women to be matriculated into a British University (Edinburgh University), where they studied medicine.

Whilst Bodies of Light might be categorised as historical fiction, as the author points out on her website: “All fiction is historical because the writer must always know, and the reader must always believe that the writers knows, how things end. Past-ness is built into the form of the novel, because the book is finished before it is read. Once we’ve understood that, the details of historical setting are just one of the pleasures of reading and writing; if the genre of ‘historical fiction’ exists at all, I’d argue that it’s a political entity, a way of taking a longer view of the present day. Novels set before living memory are far more about the readers’ and writer’s present than about the past”.