The Sleeping Beauties
Shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2021
‘To compare any book to a Sacks is unfair, but this one lives up to it . . . I finished it feeling thrillingly unsettled, and wishing there was more.’ James McConnachie, Sunday Times
‘A study of diseases that we sometimes say are ‘all in the mind’, and an explanation of how unfair that characterisation is.’ Tom Whipple, The Times Books of the Year
In Sweden, refugee children fall asleep for months and years at a time. In upstate New York, high school students develop contagious seizures. In the US Embassy in Cuba, employees complain of headaches and memory loss after hearing strange noises in the night.
These disparate cases are some of the most remarkable diagnostic mysteries of the twenty-first century, as both doctors and scientists have struggled to explain them within the boundaries of medical science and – more crucially – to treat them. What unites them is that they are all examples of a particular type of psychosomatic illness: medical disorders that are influenced as much by the idiosyncratic aspects of individual cultures as they are by human biology.
Inspired by a poignant encounter with the sleeping refugee children of Sweden, Wellcome Prize-winning neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan travels the world to visit other communities who have also been subject to outbreaks of so-called ‘mystery’ illnesses.
From a derelict post-Soviet mining town in Kazakhstan, to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua via an oil town in Texas, to the heart of the Maria Mountains in Colombia, O’Sullivan hears remarkable stories from a fascinating array of people, and attempts to unravel their complex meaning while asking the question: who gets to define what is and what isn’t an illness?
Reminiscent of the work of Oliver Sacks, Stephen Grosz and Henry Marsh, The Sleeping Beauties is a moving and unforgettable scientific investigation with a very human face.
‘To compare any book to a Sacks is unfair, but this one lives up to it.’ Sunday Times
One of the most intriguing and provocative books of the year -- Ian Sample * Guardian Best Science Books of the Year * To compare any book to a Sacks is unfair, but this one lives up to it. Not because it is alluringly freakish, but because it is so compassionate, and so driven by deep curiosity about the human psyche. I finished it feeling thrillingly unsettled, and wishing there was more. -- James McConnachie * Sunday Times * O'Sullivan doesn't offer easy answers. She just shows us, with wonderful compassion and the minimum of judgment, the ways in which people across the world have manifested symptoms that have helped them through - or beyond - painful situations . . . It is, in every sense, mind-blowing. -- Helen Brown * Daily Telegraph * O'Sullivan travels the world collecting fascinating stories of culture-bound syndromes, which she relays with nuance and sensitivity. -- Alice Robb * New Statesman * A bracing read, a little like a cold shower on a hot summer's day. -- Marcus Berkmann * Daily Mail * A study of diseases that we sometimes say are 'all in the mind', and an explanation of how unfair that characterisation is. -- Tom Whipple * The Times Books of the Year * The stories are remarkable. But no less remarkable is O'Sullivan's revelation of the way we all absorb cultural expectations of illness and reject or exhibit symptoms in response . . . Her enlightening and sympathetic book should be required reading for all doctors - and for all patients. -- Wendy Moore * Literary Review * By making social problems visible on the body, O'Sullivan believes, these conditions allow voiceless people to make themselves heard. Perhaps this eloquent and convincing book will be the start of making people in authority listen, make change and help. -- Katy Guest * Guardian * O'Sullivan's beautifully written book interweaves the stories of those afflicted in this way around the world, in a travelogue of illness that is ultimately a travelogue of our own irrational, suggestible minds . . . It is a measure of how effective O'Sullivan is at describing the dilemmas and difficulties of treating psychosomatic conditions that, by the end, a visit to a witch doctor begins to feel like the most sensible medical intervention in the book. -- Tom Whipple * The Times * Each case study peels back the rigid framework of modern medicine and demands that we reframe our understanding of what is and isn't illness. This is a progressive book that doesn't hold back on criticising the dogged diagnostic obsessions of Western medicine. -- Lucy Kehoe * Geographical * No one doubts that there is something genuinely wrong with these children, yet medicine cannot locate it. O' Sullivan tours the clusters to see if she can do any better. * Strong Words * In this fascinating book, O'Sullivan makes a case for empathy. * iNews * In my view the best science writer around - a true descendant of Oliver Sacks. -- Sathnam Sanghera, author of The Boy with the Topknot
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