The Sleeping Beauties

Suzanne O'Sullivan

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31 March 2022
9781529010572
336 pages

Synopsis

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

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.

'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

One of the most intriguing and provocative books of the year

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.

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.

Daily Telegraph