This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Wellcome Book Prize, an award which celebrates fiction and non-fiction that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. The intention of the prize is to raise public involvement and debate around the subject of medicine and health. It’s such a unique focus amongst book prizes whose categories are more general. The prize is indelibly linked to the extraordinary institution that is the Wellcome Collection. This is a free museum and library in central London which engages with the public about issues of health and is a rich resource for many. For instance, Jessie Greengrass wrote the bulk of her novel “Sight” (one of my favourite novels from last year) while working and conducting research in its library – something which is very evident in the text from the way it engages with the history of medicine.
So, to help celebrate this prize’s anniversary, I decided to peruse its history of entrants and read a book that was shortlisted for the prize in 2012. “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” by Mohammed Hanif is a darkly comic novel that begins with the novel’s titular hero Alice being interviewed for a nursing position at the dilapidated Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments in Karachi. It’s a chaotic establishment where blood is sold, medicine is pilfered and nurses are regularly molested (in one vividly horrific scene Alice defends herself with a razor blade). Alice implements simple hygienic procedures which improve the health of many patients, but as a medical facility its run more on faith than it is on science. So when an apparent miracle occurs people flock to the establishment in the hope of being magically cured. It’s a struggle for the rational, but Alice’s main dilemma is overcoming the stigma against her lower caste and Christian background. She seeks to rise above her origins, but things go badly awry.
Hanif’s writing brings the vibrancy and humanity of the city and Pakistani society to life as well as its manifold problems. Running parallel with Alice’s story are the shady dealings of the Gentlemen’s Squad, a police unit that uses strong-arm tactics and is basically a law unto itself. Teddy Butt a bodybuilder (and body waxer) is a freelance thug-for-hire who does odd jobs for them. Alice marries and attaches herself to him in the hope of gaining his protection but when their relationship becomes untenable she finds herself in even more danger. The story shows the absurdities of institutions which are run on reactionary ideas – most poignantly in the hospital’s approach to healthcare both by patients and doctors. The book’s final prologue is a heartrending lament that includes an indictment made by Alice’s father who highlights distinctions between those are deified in our society and those whose memories are besmirched. It’s a compelling and forceful novel.
I’ll be especially interested to follow the prize this year as the chair of judges is author Elif Shafak. A longlist will be announced in February, followed by a shortlist in March and the winner later in the Spring.