• The Wellcome Book Prize celebrates works of fiction and non-fiction that touch on themes of health, illness, science, and medicine

  • 2019's shortlist has just been announced, with works covering gender, mental health, trauma, and death

The shortlist for the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize is announced today, Tuesday 19 March, celebrating the best new books that illuminate the many ways that health, medicine and illness touch our lives. 

  • Amateur: A reckoning with gender, identity and masculinity (Canongate Books) by Thomas Page McBee (USA) Non-fiction
  • Heart: A history (Oneworld) by Sandeep Jauhar (India/USA) Non-fiction
  • Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery (Penguin Ireland) by Arnold Thomas Fanning (Ireland) Non-fiction
  • Murmur (CB Editions) by Will Eaves (UK) Fiction
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Jonathan Cape) by Ottessa Moshfegh (USA) Fiction
  • The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster (The Text Publishing Company) by Sarah Krasnostein (Australia/USA) Non-fiction

Chaired by the award-winning author Elif Shafak, the judging panel have selected a wonderfully eclectic shortlist that showcases the breadth and depth of this exceptional genre. The six titles in contention for the £30,000 prize explore our complex relationships with gender, identity, mental health and mortality.

Elif Shafak commented on behalf of the judging panel: “The judging panel is very excited and proud to present this astonishing collection of titles, ranging from the darkly comic to the searingly honest. While the books selected are strikingly unique in their subject matter and style, the rich variety of writing also shares much in common: each is raw and brave and inspirational, deepening our understanding of what it truly means to be human through the transformative power of storytelling.”

The two novels on this year’s list look at the connection between the body and mind, identity and gender. Inspired by the life of Alan Turing, Murmur by Will Eaves fictionalises the devastating period before the mathematician’s suicide in an extraordinary contemplation on consciousness, science and the future. Ottessa Moshfegh’s savagely comic My Year of Rest and Relaxation chronicles a privileged New York woman’s decision to enter a drug-induced coma to sleep away her emotions.

Gender is also integral to two of this year’s shortlisted non-fiction books. Amateur by Thomas Page McBee, the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden, provides an unflinching exploration into the limitations of conventional masculinity and the vexed relationship between men and violence. Sarah Krasnostein’s compelling biography The Trauma Cleaner, uncovers the complex life of Sandra Pankhurst – husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife – and how her journey through childhood abuse, trauma and transphobic hostility has led her to a vocation bringing order and care to both the living and the dead.

The final two titles on the list explore mental health and mortality. Arnold Thomas Fanning’s beautifully written memoir, Mind of Fire, is a harrowing insight into the consciousness of someone living with mania, psychosis and severe depression, and has visited hellish regions of the mind and survived to tell the tale. In Heart, cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar draws on both his professional expertise and his personal medical history to give an unparalleled insight into this extraordinary organ, and the importance of facing our own mortality.

The shortlisted authors are from the UK, USA, India, Australia and Ireland, and include two debuts Arnold Thomas Fanning (Mind on Fire) and Sarah Krasnostein (The Trauma Cleaner).

The winner will be revealed at an evening ceremony on Wednesday 1 May at Wellcome Collection.

Quotes from the judging panel on the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize shortlist:

Kevin Fong on Amateur: A reckoning with gender, identity and masculinity by Thomas Page McBee Amateur is a book about many things: masculinity, sex, gender and expectation. A fascinating blend of science and memoir, it challenges and confounds some of our most ingrained prejudices. But above all, Amateur is the story of an extraordinary man, fighting to find his place in the world.”

Elif Shafak on Heart: A history by Sandeep Jauhar:

“This is a vital book. A charming, honest and unflinching exploration of a most fascinating organ: the heart. Cardiologist and author Sandeep Jauhar beautifully weaves medical research with philosophy, science with personal stories – of patients and doctors, including his very own. The depth of his knowledge is remarkable but the breadth of his compassion even more so.”

Rick Edwards on Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery by Arnold Thomas Fanning:

"Arnold Thomas Fanning is a successful playwright now but in his 20s he suffered with severe bouts of mania and depression. In this unflinching present-tense memoir he recounts in vivid, and often harrowing, detail his descent into madness, hospitalisation and homelessness during a biting London winter. Masterfully written, it gives extraordinary insight into what it feels like to be in the grips of delusion."

Elif Shafak on Murmur by Will Eaves:

“Beautifully imagined, splendidly paced, masterfully written, Murmur is a real gem – a book to fall in love with. This novel will grip your mind in the very first pages, break your heart half-way through, and in the end, strangely, unexpectedly, restore your faith in human beings and their endless capacity for resilience.”

Viv Groskop on My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh:

Jane Eyre meets Prozac Nation in this wonderfully caustic, funny and feminist novel about a woman who decides that self-medication and isolation in a Manhattan apartment are the only way to maintain sanity. Original, playful and strangely profound. After all, who hasn’t occasionally wanted to avoid life through a drug-induced sleep?”

Jon Day on The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster by Sarah Krasnostein:

The Trauma Cleaner is that rare thing: a book that gets better the more times you read it. It tells the story of a woman with a traumatic past, a triumphant present, and a job few people want to think about. Above all it is the story of a friendship. It simply crackles with life.”

Further reading

Wellcome book prize 2018 winner: To be a Machine by Mark O'Connell

Wellcome book prize 2017 winner: Mend the Living by Maylis de Karangal

Wellcome book prize 2016 winner: It's All in Your Head by Suzanne O'Sullivan

Wellcome book prize 2015 winner: The Iceberg by Marion Coutts