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From the cover of Mend the Living | Courtesy of MacLehose Press
From the cover of Mend the Living | Courtesy of MacLehose Press

Maylis de Kerangal Wins the Wellcome Book Prize for 'Mend the Living'

Picture of Simon Leser
UK Literary Editor
Updated: 2 May 2017

French writer Maylis de Kerangal was named the winner of this year’s Wellcome Book Prize at a ceremony in London yesterday evening. The £30,000 (US$36,701) prize rewards “exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction that engage with the topics of health and medicine and the many ways they touch our lives.”

Her novel, translated into English by Jessica Moore, beat out the 140 other books originally entered into the competition, culminating a process that started earlier this year. The longlist had been announced in January; the shortlist in March.

The judges this year were Simon Baron-Cohen, Gemma Cairney, Tim Lewens, Di Speirs, as well as venerable Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, who served as the panel’s chair. Speaking on behalf of the group, she said that settling on a decision had proved “a difficult, daunting task,” partly because they had to choose between those who write “non-fiction” and “those who make stuff up.” In the end, though, they settled on Mend the Living, only the second novel to win the prize. McDermid had this to say about the work:

Mend the Living is a metaphorical and lyrical exploration of the journey of one heart and two bodies. Over 24 hours we travel from trauma to hope, discovering both the humane aspect of organ donation and the internal dramas of those affected by it. Compelling, original and ambitious, this novel illuminates what it is to be human.”

Val McDermid and Maylis de Kerangal | ©David Bishop/Wellcome

De Kerangal’s novel follows the journey of a heart rescued from a dying boy and transplanted into someone else’s body. All the judges I talked to at the ceremony praised the novel for its unique ability to mix a profoundly emotional narrative with a very detailed account of the processes—and dilemmas—of organ donation. Tim Lewens added that it was an important novel in that last regard, one he would recommend to everyone, if at least because it encourages the reader to think about donation before it’s too late.

The author herself was full of praise for her translator Jessica Moore, who she says “managed to capture the voice” of the original French perfectly. She also wanted to thank her British publisher Christopher MacLehose, as well as his wife, literary scout Koukla MacLehose, who was the first to push for a translation of Mend the Living.

Maylis de Kerangal’s novel has already been adapted into a film entitled Heal the Living, which will open in UK cinemas on April 28. The film has so far received excellent reviews, and has a 87% ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The prize was set up in 2009 by the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest medical research charity, which also happens to run the Wellcome Collection—a museum in London dedicated to displaying both art and medical artifacts. The prize is concerned wholly with new books engaging an aspect of medicine or illness in a meaningful way. Previous winners have included Marion Coutts for The Iceberg, Suzanne O’Sullivan for It’s All in Your Head, Andrew Solomon for Far from the Tree, and Rebecca Skloot for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

More information here.