The Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Awards Ceremony

Yesterday evening’s Wellcome Book Prize announcement was my first time attending a literary prize awards ceremony. Despite my nerves going in, there was quite a relaxed atmosphere (I felt almost overdressed in my H&M dress) and it was no different to any party where one struggles to make small talk – except that here all the talk was of books!

The new high-ceilinged Reading Room at the Wellcome Library (across from London’s Euston station) was a suitably swanky setting, with the unusual collection of health-themed books surrounded by an equally odd set of curios, such as death masks, paintings showing medical conditions, and a columnar red dress designed to resemble a neural tube. There was even a jazz duo playing.

It was especially lovely to meet up with Clare (A Little Blog of Books) and Ruby (My Booking Great Blog) and compare notes on book blogging while nursing a flute of prosecco and some superlative canapés. We also indulged in some subtle celebrity spotting – or, at least, the sort of authors and public figures I consider celebrities: Ned Beauman, Sarah Churchwell, A.C. Grayling, Cathy Rentzenbrink, and Suzanne O’Sullivan, last year’s Wellcome Prize winner. Three of the shortlisted authors were also present.

About 45 minutes into the event, the official proceedings began. Crime writer Val McDermid, the chair of this year’s judging panel, gave introductory remarks about the Prize and the attributes they were looking for when assessing the 140 books in the running this year. She said they were in search of books that went beyond the superficial and revealed more layers upon each rereading – as by now they’ve read the shortlisted books three times.

Chair of judges Val McDermid in center; fellow judge and BBC Radio books editor Di Spiers to her left.

Each of the judges then came to the podium to explain what they had all admired about a particular shortlisted book before presenting the author or author’s representative (editor, publisher or, in the case of Paul Kalanithi, his younger brother Jeevan, over from America) with flowers. When McDermid returned to the microphone to announce the winner, she started off by speaking of a book that combined two stories, the medical and the personal. Hmm, this might describe at least four or five of the books from the shortlist, I thought. Could it be When Breath Becomes Air, our shadow panel favorite? Or The Tidal Zone, our runner-up?

Within seconds the wait was over and we learned the actual winner was Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. There was a pleased roar from the room, but also plenty of blinks and head shakes of surprise, I think. De Kerangal gave a few words of thanks, especially to the U.K. translator and publisher who made this edition of her book possible. This was the first work in translation to win the Wellcome Book Prize, and only the second novel (after Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante in 2011).

Clare and I stuck around for another hour and were unexpectedly asked for book recommendations by a member of the Wellcome legal team who was kind enough to take an interest in us as book bloggers. She confessed that since uni she doesn’t read much anymore, but said that at school she enjoyed Jane Austen and she’s recently read Elena Ferrante’s books. Based on that rather thin history, we suggested she try Zadie Smith, and I also spoke up for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

On the way out we were given terrific bookish swag bags! Mine contained a paperback reissue copy of The Tidal Zone, a Wellcome Prize bookmark and commemorative booklet, and a blank notebook featuring optician’s glass eyes.

I can’t see such London events ever being frequent for me, especially given the cost of travel in from Newbury, but if a similar opportunity arises again I won’t hesitate to take advantage of it, especially if it means putting faces to names from the U.K. blogging community.

(See also Ruby’s write-up of last night.)

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15 thoughts on “The Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Awards Ceremony

  1. It’s fun, isn’t it! I’ve sort of stopped going to launches now because I can’t often swing a +1 and I’m so scared of being on my own like a lemon, but an event like this sounds a bit less intimidating. So glad you enjoyed (and that notebook in your gift bag!! omg.)

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    1. I was so relieved to learn that two bloggers I ‘know’ were going to be there. Otherwise it would have been rough; I would have just stood there drinking on my own until the announcement and then left 😉 I actually fancied talking to Cathy Rentzenbrink, but she was never not in conversation with someone else.

      Isn’t the eyeball notebook great?! And I was so pleased to get a copy of The Tidal Zone; I’d read it from the library for the shadow panel.

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  2. How lovely! It’s sounds like a great event, and not too intimidating either. I was very pleased to discover that Mend the Living was declared the winner last night as it’s actually the one I’m most interested to read. Luckily I have a copy so there’s no excuse for me to hold back now!

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  3. Sounds like it was a great experience – and well-deserved after your efforts as a shadow-panellist. You’ve introduced me to several books I would never have considered thanks to your reviews of the shortlist.

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  4. What an interesting experience, thank you for sharing it with us! I would have had to leave the eye notebook behind, although I do really like the Wellcome Cafe and often pop in on London trips as it’s so handy for the train home!

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    1. The whole building is very impressive. I had been to the library once before, back when I worked for King’s College London libraries and we did a visit, but the Reading Room the event was held in is new since then.

      Liked by 1 person

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