New this year, the Barbellion Prize will be awarded annually “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” It’s named after W.N.P. Barbellion (the pen name of Bruce Frederick Cummings), the English author of The Journal of a Disappointed Man, which he started writing at 13. A self-taught naturalist, he specialized in lice when he worked for the British Museum’s department of natural history in London. He was rejected for war service in 1915 after a doctor found him to have multiple sclerosis. At that time, the diagnosis was like a death sentence; indeed, Cummings died at age 30 in 1919, though by then he had managed to produce two volumes of memoirs as well as a daughter.
Here’s some more information on the prize criteria from the website: “Eligibility for the prize is predicated on the author’s presentation of life with a long-term chronic illness or disability, whether that be in the form of blindness, MS, cystic fibrosis, dwarfism, or another comparable condition that may substantially define one’s life. Authors – such as those in a carer’s capacity – who themselves are not ill may be considered for the prize if their work is truly exceptional as an articulation of life with illness, but authors who themselves deal personally with illness or disability will take priority in any selection for the prize.”
Especially in the absence of the Wellcome Book Prize, which has been on hiatus since the announcement of the 2019 winner, I’m delighted that there is a new prize with a health slant, particularly one that will lead to greater visibility for disabled writers and their stories. From a longlist of eight, in January the Barbellion Prize judges chose a shortlist of four titles: three memoirs and a work of autofiction. The publishers kindly agreed to send me the shortlist for review. Two have arrived so far (there have been postal delays in the UK, as in many places).
I have already read one of the nominees and will do my best to review the rest before the £1000 prize is awarded on the 12th. The others are:
- Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer – An illustrated memoir by a visual artist born with spina bifida.
- The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills – A memoir of being a carer for her father, who has paranoid schizophrenia; also includes musings on Leonard Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who cared for mentally ill wives. I’m currently reading this one.
- Kika & Me by Amit Patel – Patel was a trauma doctor and lost his sight within 36 hours due to a rare condition. He was paired with his guide dog, Kika, in 2015.
Sanatorium by Abi Palmer (2020)
Water is a source of comfort and delight for Abi, the narrator of Sanatorium (whose experiences may or may not be those of the author; always tricky to tell with autofiction). Floating is like dreaming for her – an intermediate state between the solid world where she’s in pain and the prospect of vanishing into the air. In 2017 she spends a few weeks at a sanatorium in Budapest for water therapy; when she returns to London she buys a big inflatable plastic bathtub to keep up the exercises as she tries to wean herself off of opiates.
Abi feels fragile due to a whole host of body issues, some in her past but most continuing into the present: an autoimmune connective tissue disorder, psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and sexual assaults. Her knee is most immediately problematic, leading her to use a mobility scooter. As her health waxes and wanes, other people – unable to appreciate any internal or incremental changes – judge her by whether or not she is able to walk well.
The book is in snippets, often of just a paragraph or even one sentence, and cycles through its several strands: Abi’s time in Budapest and how she captures it in an audio diary; ongoing therapy at her London flat, custom-designed for disabled tenants (except “I was the only cripple who could afford it”); the haunted house she grew up in in Surrey; and notes on plus prayers to St. Teresa of Ávila, accompanied by diagrams of a female figure in yoga poses.
Locations are given in small letters in the top corner of the page, apart from for the more dreamlike segments that can’t be pinned down to any one place. For instance, I was reminded of a George Saunders story by the surreal interlude in which Abi imagines Van Gogh’s Starry Night reproduced in the hair on a detached pair of legs mounted on a wall as a work of art.
The different formats and short chunks of prose generally keep the voice from becoming monotonous, though I did wonder if occasional use of the third person (and some more second person) could have been effective, too. Far from a straightforward memoir, the book incorporates passages that are closer to fantasy and poetry, and the visual elements and fertile imagery attest to Palmer’s background as a mixed-media artist.
Sanatorium is a fascinating work – matter-of-fact, playful and sensual – that vividly conveys the reality of life with a chronic illness. It was already on my wish list, but I’m so glad that this shortlisting gave me a chance to read it. Though I haven’t read the other nominees yet, the passages below are proof that this would be a deserving Barbellion Prize winner.
You go through life as a chronically ill person with so many different people who have so many different opinions about how your treatment should be. They’re not always useful or right. You have to build your own narrative and your own sense of what feels appropriate. You have to learn to trust your body to tell you what’s working. But that’s hard too, when your body keeps changing the rules.
I am one of the more privileged ones and still I’m screaming. God, it would be so nice just to dissolve into nothing and wash up onto a lonely beach.
I wonder if what I’ve learned about chronic illness, more than anything, is that it’s a constant cycle. You fall apart, then you try your best to rebuild again. I wonder what would happen if I stopped trying.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
- Heal Me by Julia Buckley
- Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
With thanks to Penned in the Margins for the free copy for review.
Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson
This book best met the criteria of the Wellcome Book Prize: “At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”
Jackie says (in her blog tour review): “Constellations is a collection of fourteen essays written by an eloquent storyteller. Each celebrates the imperfect body – its workings and failings. … The stories told are incisive and highly personal. They cover a variety of the author’s lived experiences including: bone disease, cancer treatment, pregnancy, motherhood, and death. … The writing throughout is percipient and exquisitely rendered, arguments expressed with clarity and compassion.”
Annabel says: “Gleeson’s beautifully written essays on her life, her health, pain and illness, motherhood, and being a woman in Ireland are deeply personal, yet speak volumes. Richly varied in style and closing with a poem written to her daughter, the collection explores her themes in elegant prose with not a word wasted. She questions, explains, understands, writing through pain, but also shows her joie de vivre. Superb!” (See more in her 5-star review.)
From my review (December 2018): “Gleeson turns pain into art. … She marvels at all that the body can withstand, but realizes that medical interventions leave permanent marks, physical or emotional. She also remarks on the essential loneliness of illness, and the likelihood of women’s pain not being believed in or acknowledged. This book feels timely and is inventive in how it brings together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies.”
Some favourite quotes from Constellations:
“Our bodies are sacred, certainly, but they are often not ours alone. Our hospital body, all rivers of scars; the day-to-day form that we present to the world … we create our own matryoshka bodies, and try to keep one that is just for us.”
“Joints can be replaced, organs transplanted, blood transfused, but the story of our lives is still the story of one body. From ill health to heartbreak, we live inside the same skin, aware of its fragility, grappling with our mortality.”
“Illness is an outpost: lunar, Arctic, difficult to reach.”
(Honorable mention goes to The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman for winning the popular vote on Twitter. I was so pleased that we got 354 votes! We arrived at a winner, as we have in the past few years, through each member of the shadow panel doling out 21 points, assigning each book a point value from 1 to 6. The Twitter scores were assigned in the same way and added in, and the winner was the book with the most points in total.)
Thank you to the rest of the shadow panel (Annabel of Annabookbel, Clare of A Little Blog of Books, Laura of Dr. Laura Tisdall and Paul of Halfman, Halfbook) and to all the bloggers who took part in the blog tour for helping to showcase some of the best health-themed literature published in 2019.
Here’s hoping that this time next year some of us can be meeting up in person to celebrate the awarding of the 2021 Wellcome Book Prize.