Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: All My Puny Sorrows

Posted on 24th April 2015 by Miriam Toews & Wellcome Book Prize
With the winner announced next week, we're taking a look at the shortlist for this year's Wellcome Book Prize.

The Wellcome Book Prize is awarded to a book that engages and explores with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. Perhaps most interestingly, this can cover many genres of writing from crime and romance to popular science, sci fi and history. Through this, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to encourage debate around these topics through these books.

On this year's shortlist is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Towes, in which Elf and Yoli are two sisters who care deeply for each other. Elf is a world-renowned pianist, who is glamorous, wealthy, happily married and yet she wants to die. Yoli is divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men and desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. When Elf's latest suicide attempt leaves her hospitalised weeks before her highly anticipated world tour, Yoli has to confront the impossibly difficult question of whether it is better to let a loved one go. Read an extract below.


our house was taken away on the back of a truck one afternoon late in the summer of 1979. My parents and my older sister and I stood in the middle of the street and watched it disappear, a low-slung bungalow made of wood and brick and plaster slowly making its way down First Street, past the A&W and the Deluxe Bowling Lanes and out onto the number twelve highway, where we eventually lost sight of it. I can still see it, said my sister Elfrieda repeatedly, until finally she couldn’t. I can still see it. I can still see it. I can still . . . Okay, nope, it’s gone, she said.

My father had built it himself back when he had a new bride, both of them barely twenty years old, and a dream. My mother told Elfrieda and me that she and my father were so young and so exploding with energy that on hot evenings, just as soon as my father had finished teaching school for the day and my mother had finished the baking and everything else, they’d go running through the sprinkler in their new front yard, whooping and leaping, completely oblivious to the stares and consternation of their older neighbours, who thought it unbecoming of  a newly married Mennonite couple to be cavorting, half dressed, in full view of the entire town. Years later, Elfrieda would describe the scene as my parents’ La Dolce Vita moment, and the sprinkler as their Trevi Fountain.

Where’s it going? I asked my father. We stood in the centre of the road. The house was gone. My father made a visor with his hand to block the sun’s glare. I don’t know, he said. He didn’t want to know. Elfrieda and my mother and I got into our car and waited for my father to join us. He stood looking at emptiness for what seemed like an eternity to me. Elfrieda complained that the backs of her legs were burning up on the hot plastic seat. Finally my mother reached over and honked the horn, only slightly, not enough to startle my father, but to make him turn and look at us.

It was such a hot summer and we had a few days to kill before we could move into our new house, which was similar to our old house but not one that my father had built himself  with loving attention to every detail such as a long covered porch to sit in and watch electrical storms while remaining dry, and so my parents decided we should go camping in the Badlands of South Dakota.

We spent the whole time, it seemed, setting everything up and then tearing it all down. My sister, Elfrieda, said it wasn’t really life—it was like being in a mental hospital where everyone walked around with the sole purpose of surviving and conserv- ing energy, it was like being in a refugee camp, it was a halfway house for recovering neurotics, it was this and that, she didn’t like camping—and our mother said well, honey, it’s meant to alter our perception of  things. Paris would do that too, said Elf, or LSD, and our mother said c’mon, the point is we’re all together, let’s cook our wieners.

The propane stove had an oil leak and exploded into four- foot flames and charred the picnic table but while that was happening Elfrieda danced around the fire singing “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks, a song about a black sheep saying goodbye to everyone because he’s dying, and our father swore for the first recorded time (What in the Sam Hills!) and stood close to the fire poised to do something but what, what, and our mother stood there shaking, laughing, unable to speak. I yelled at my family to move away from the fire, but nobody moved an inch as if they had been placed in their positions by a movie director and the fire was only fake and the scene would be ruined if they moved. Then I grabbed the half-empty Rainbow ice cream pail that was sitting on the picnic table and ran across the field to a communal tap and filled the pail with water and ran back and threw the water onto the flames, which leapt higher then, mingled with the scents of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, towards the branches of an overhanging poplar tree. A branch sparked into fire but only briefly because by then the skies had darkened and suddenly rain and hail began their own swift assault, and we were finally safe, at least from fire.

That evening after the storm had passed and the faulty propane stove had been tossed into a giant cougar-proof garbage cage, my father and my sister decided to attend a lecture on what was once thought to be the extinct black-footed ferret. It was being held in the amphitheatre of the campground, and they said they might stick around for the second lecture as well, which was being given by an expert in astrophysics about the nature of dark matter. What is that? I asked my sister and she said she didn’t know but she thought it constituted a large part of the universe. You can’t see it, she said, but you can feel its effects, or something. Is it evil? I asked her. She laughed, and I remember perfectly or should I say I have a perfect memory of how she looked standing there in her hot pants and striped halter top with the shadowy eroded Badlands behind her, her head back, way back, her long thin neck and its white leather choker with the blue bead in the centre, her burst of  laugh- ter like a volley of warning shots, a challenge to the world to come and get her if  it dared. She and my father walked off towards the amphitheatre, my mother calling out to them— make kissing sounds to ward off rattlesnakes!—and while they were gone and learning about invisible forces and extinction, my mother and I stayed beside the tent and played “What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf ?” against the last remaining blotches of  the setting sun.

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 29th April 2015.


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