Wellcome Book Prize Longlist: Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning

“all these ideas are swirling around inside your head at once, hurling through your mind, it is on fire, so when you speak it all comes out muddled and confused and no one can understand you.”

Like the other Wellcome-longlisted title I’ve highlighted so far, Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, Mind on Fire explores mental health. Its subtitle is “A Memoir of Madness and Recovery,” and Irish playwright Fanning focuses on the ten years or so in his twenties and thirties when he struggled to get on top of his bipolar disorder and was in and out of mental hospitals – and even homeless on the streets of London for a short time.

Fanning had suffered from periods of depression ever since his mother’s death from cancer when he was 20, but things got much worse when he was 28 and living in Dublin. It was the summer of 1997 and he’d quit a full-time job to write stories and film scripts. What with the wild swings in his moods and energy levels, though, he found it increasingly difficult to get along with his father, with whom he was living. He also got kicked out of an artists’ residency, and on the way home his car ran out of petrol – such that when he called the police for help, it was for a breakdown in more than one sense. This was the first time he was taken to a psychiatric unit, at the Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital, where he stayed for 10 days.

In the years to come there would be many more hospital stays, delusions, medication regimes and odd behavior. There would also be time spent in America – an artists’ residency in Virginia, where he met Jennifer, and a fairly long-term relationship with her in New York City – and ups and downs in his writing career. For instance, he remembers that after reading Ulysses he was so despairingly convinced that he would never be a “real writer” like James Joyce that he burned hundreds of pages of work-in-progress.

This was a very hard book for me to rate. The prologue is a brilliant 6.5-page run-on sentence in the second person and present tense (I’ve quoted a fragment above) that puts you right into the author’s experience. It is a superb piece of writing. But nothing that comes after (a more standard first-person narrative, though still in the present tense for most of it) is nearly as good. As I’ve found in some other mental health memoirs, the cycle of hospitalizations and medications gets repetitive. It’s a whole lot of telling: this happened, then that happened. That’s also true of the flashbacks to his childhood and university years.

Due to his unreliable memory of his years lost to bipolar, Fanning has had to recreate his experiences from medical records, interviews with people who knew him, and so on. This insistence on documentary realism distances the reader from what should be intimate, terrifying events. I almost wondered if this would have worked better as a novel, allowing the author to invent more and thus better capture what it actually felt like to flirt with madness. There’s no denying the extremity of this period of his life, but I found myself unable to fully engage with the retelling. (Also, this is doomed to be mistaken for the superior Brain on Fire.)

My rating:


A favorite passage:

St John of God’s carries associations for me. I attended primary school not far from here, and used to see denizens of the hospital on their day outings, conspicuous in the way they walked: hunched over, balled up, constricted, eyes down to the ground, visibly disturbed. We cruelly referred to these people as ‘mentallers’, though never to their faces or within earshot, as we were frightened of them.

Now I, too, am a mentaller.

My gut feeling: There are several stronger memoirs on the longlist, so I don’t see this one making it through.


Longlist strategy:

  • I’m about halfway through both The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.
  • I finally got hold of a library copy of Murmur by Will Eaves.
  • The only two books I haven’t read and don’t have access to are Astroturf and Polio. I’ll only read these if they are on the shortlist. (Fingers crossed Astroturf doesn’t make it: it sounds awful!)

The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, March 19th, and the winner will be revealed on Wednesday, May 1st.

We plan to choose our own shortlist to announce on Friday, March 15th. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews and predictions.

16 responses

  1. What a shame this was such a missed opportunity. Always good to have your fair and clear-eyed assessments, however!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It could just be that I’ve read too many accounts of mental illness, recently or full stop. Others might find it a powerful reconstruction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know what you mean – I read a few back in the day and they do get a bit repetitive. I suppose it’s a genre!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh dear, another one I’m really not keen on. I hope you’re right, and it’s not shortlisted!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If it is, it at least has the virtue of being fairly short. I can pass my copy round if necessary.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I was thinking of reading this for Ireland Month but I might leave it asI have already read Brain on Fire!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, he has gotten some good attention and nice reviews in Ireland. If you’ve not read a whole lot around mental health and hospitalizations, you might not find the details as repetitive as I did. It’s good that the longlist is getting his story some notice, anyway.


  4. I can report that I have just read Astroturf. It’s not awful as in bad writing. In fact the writing is very good, very pared down and it’s a clever story. But the characters are not pleasant people, particularly the main character. And for me it is soulless and without a message, the main character is a bit like the outsider in Camus’s L’Etranger. Also I don’t know the criteria for the Wellcome Prize but the book had only a remote link to health/science. I wonder why Heal Me is not on the longlist – or was it last year???

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had hoped to see Heal Me and/or That Was when People Started to Worry on the longlist. They were both eligible, but you never know what the publishers put forward (it’s a maximum of three books each).

      Often the fiction that gets nominated for the Wellcome Prize has more of a tenuous link to medicine. I take it that steroid use is the link for Astroturf? Paul from our shadow panel read it and rated it 2 stars, so I would definitely not be looking forward to it.


  5. In spite of the very valid points you make, I may give it a go due to family members with bi-polar. Excellent review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure personal interest will make it fascinating for you.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t feel so bad about my 3-star rating now, Rebecca! 😉

    On a serious note, you’re right about how “the cycle of hospitalizations and medications” can be repetitive in mental health memoirs and I know they were in my book.

    As for: “It’s a whole lot of telling: this happened, then that happened. That’s also true of the flashbacks to his childhood and university years.” Again, that’s the case with “Birth of a New Brain.” I didn’t handle any of that the way I had hoped I would. (I wish I had a developmental editor. I think if I had been assigned one, she would have helped me shape the MS into a much stronger memoir but unfortunately, that didn’t happen.)

    However, sixteen months post-publication, my readers with perinatal mental illnesses and/or treatment-resistant bipolar depression email me. They thank me for my memoir and tell me they’re relieved to finally find someone else living with postpartum bipolar. Sometimes I’m told it has been a lifesaving book. Even though my book isn’t a literary masterpiece and it will never be on any length list, it has helped people in some surprisngly profound ways, nd that feels really good.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Rebecca suggested that ‘Mind on Fire’ might work better as a novel. For me, the power of the opening monologue suggests that Fanning’s talent as a playwright could see him adapt this for the stage in some form. As a memoir, ‘Mind on Fire’ is still a very intense account which conveys a vivid and unflinching sense of what it is like to be in that state of mind and how completely debilitating it is. Among the other shortlisted titles, it sits somewhere in the middle of my personal preferences. […]


  8. […] Bookish Beck has also reviewed Mind on Fire when it was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize in 2019 and you can read her review here. […]


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