Introducing the Barbellion Prize & A Review of Sanatorium by Abi Palmer

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:

With thanks to Penned in the Margins for the free copy for review.

22 responses

  1. This prize is such a great endeavour, though, given the terms, it doesn’t fully replace the Wellcome Prize which I still want back! Sanatorium sounds really interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. And, of course, in its first year it’s still very low-profile and low-value. But I imagine the two awards could be complementary. I’ve been thinking about e-mailing the Wellcome organisers to check what’s happening and whether I can get involved in some way — not that I expect them to give me any confidential information, or let me be a judge (I already asked in 2018 and got the nicest, but most noncommittal, reply imaginable!), but maybe there would be a role for lay advisors who could vet titles before longlisting or something like that, or perhaps they’d be interested in starting a formal shadow panel.

      Sanatorium was so out-of-the-ordinary, and a very quick read due to the format. I’d recommend it to you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Keep me in the loop if you find out anything from Wellcome! Yeah, they could be complementary – I suspect Wellcome has not centred the narratives of disabled and chronically ill people as much as it could have done, hence the need for this prize.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fascinating. I’m getting increasingly interested in memoirs and autofiction about chronic illness and disability, for both personal and creative reasons, so this just got bumped way up my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ll love it; it’s so creative. And if you need any more ideas, let me know!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like such a valuable highlighting of people’s lives who have been left out of the mainstream. Some interesting titles there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely! I’ve been enjoying the shortlist so far (I’m halfway through another two and the last one has yet to arrive). Of the remaining longlist, I’m most interested in Saving Lucia, a novel featuring James Joyce’s daughter.


  4. This prize is such a great idea! I want to read all the books!
    Sanatorium reminds me a bit of a novel I just read called Aftershock (I plan to review it) – the mother suffers from chronic pain and gets hooked on opiates. One of her doctors suggests she try a salt water bath, which sounded absolutely wonderful.
    I’m really curious to hear about Kika and Me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, that does sound similar. I’ll look out for your review!

      Kika has her own Twitter account – @Kika_GuideDog. I’m 1/3 through the book and she hasn’t appeared yet, but she’s about to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooo… I’ll look for that!


  5. […] the achievements of Disabled artists, this would be my clear winner of the inaugural award, with Sanatorium my backup choice. It is also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for […]


  6. Oh this list looks fascinating, I had heard nothing about it. I’m very interested in accounts of living with disability (my 14 yr old is disabled )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s new this year and still pretty low in profile, so a lot of people are just discovering it. Hopefully with the attention and donations it gets this year, it can afford more marketing and a higher cash value next year!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes! I’ve just chucked half the longlist in my online shopping basket 😬

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] of chronic illness and/or disability.” (See also my reviews of Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer and Sanatorium by Abi […]


  9. It must be very challenging to get a new literary prize off the ground. There’s so much competition for readers’ attentions these days. How exciting for you to have discovered it though, especially it is aligns so neatly with your reading taste.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s gotten some good coverage in the press, e.g. a BBC radio interview with the winner, so I hope next year it will have a higher profile and higher monetary amount. They were grateful for the blogger support. The Wellcome Prize being on hiatus might be a boon, as people who are interested in health reads now have an alternative award to keep up with.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Hewitt, while in prose I was also reminded of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (review coming soon) and Sanatorium by Abi […]


  11. […] This collection of new essays and excerpts from previously published volumes accompanies the upcoming Wellcome Collection exhibition Rooted Beings (a collaboration with La Casa Encendida, Madrid, it’s curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz and Emily Sargent and will run from 24 March to 29 August). The overarching theme is our connection with plants and fungi, and the ways in which they communicate. Some of the authors are known for their nature writing – there’s an excerpt from Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, Jessica J. Lee (author of Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest) contributes an essay on studying mosses, and a short section from Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass closes the book – while others are better known in other fields, like Susie Orbach and Abi Palmer (author of Sanatorium). […]


  12. […] whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” In the inaugural year I read the entire shortlist, and last year I had already read a few from the longlist and was able […]


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