A novel that “illustrates what it is to be human” has become the first translated book to win the Wellcome prize for science writing.
Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which tracks the journey of a heart from donor to recipient over 24 hours, is only the second novel ever to scoop the £30,000 prize, which is awarded to a work of fiction or nonfiction that engages with health and medicine.
Announcing the winner, chair of judges Val McDermid said: “Sometimes you read a memoir and it is just one person’s tragedy, but this is about the tragedy and hope that comes from loss that could affect every single one of us.” She said the judges “felt very strongly” that the book had the potential to change the lives of readers and called it “compelling, original and ambitious”.
De Kerangal’s novel was translated from French by Jessica Moore, who was awarded £10,000. McDermid praised the translation, which she told the Guardian pulled off the difficult trick of shaping a book into a second language without undermining the intention or voice of the original.
Describing herself as a “long-time advocate” of translated fiction, McDermid, a bestselling crime writer, said: “Publishers have very slowly woken up to the importance to readers of translated fiction as a way of understanding a globalised world … The English language doesn’t have a monopoly on terrific writing and I am very happy to be one of the judges who chose this book.”
Mend the Living begins with vibrant young surfer Simon Limbeau suffering catastrophic injuries in a road traffic accident. Faced with a son who has been left brain dead, his parents are forced to decide whether to turn off his life support and donate his heart. The story then follows Limbeau’s heart on its way to a donor recipient and explores how people recover hope in tragic circumstances.
The novel, which was also longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker international prize, has also been adapted to film. Directed by Katell Quillévéré and renamed Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants), it stars Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner and Anne Dorval and is set for a UK release at the end of April.
Mend the Living was chosen from a strong shortlist of six books that included two novels, the other being Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss, about a family navigating the NHS as they come to terms with a child’s unexpected illness.
Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, which examines how the 40tn microbes in the human body affect us, was the only debut on the shortlist. The other three books interweaved science with personal experience. Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was the first author to be in contention for the prize posthumously, with his memoir When Breath Becomes Air recounting his final months of life with terminal lung cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene blends a narrative about genetics with the story of reoccurring mental illness in his family, while David France, a gay man and an eyewitness to the Aids epidemic, wrote of the struggle faced by HIV/Aids activists during the 1980s in How to Survive a Plague.
McDermid chaired a panel of judges that mixed broadcasters and writers with scientists. Cambridge professors Simon Baron-Cohen and Tim Lewens joined the Wire in the Blood author on a panel completed by broadcaster Gemma Cairney and radio producer Di Speirs.