Will Eaves’s novel ‘Murmur’ – inspired by real-life tragedy of Alan Turing – wins £30,000 literature prize

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The novelist and poet Will Eaves has won the 2019 Wellcome book prize for his fictionalised take on the chemical castration of mathematician Alan Turing.

‘Murmur’ (read our review here), published by CB Editions, was hailed as “a future classic” by judges of the £30,000 prize. It is Eaves’s fifth novel and the third published by the independent printing press run by Charles Boyle. The book has been picking up critical acclaim since it was published – winning the Republic of Consciousness award earlier in 2019 and being shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize and James Tait and Folio awards.

Taking its cue from the arrest and legally enforced chemical castration of the mathematician Alan Turing, Murmur is the account of a man who responds to intolerable physical and mental stress with love, honour and a rigorous, unsentimental curiosity about the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the world.

Formally audacious, daring in its intellectual inquiry and unwaveringly humane, Will Eaves’s new novel is a rare achievement that explores everything from love, society, mathematics, memory and consciousness itself.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Eaves said of his novel:

“I was very nervous about tackling Turing. I’m not a mathematician so I had to work hard to understand the meta-mathematics of Godelian incompleteness, the Entscheidungsproblem, etc, and I hope I haven’t made too many errors. For fictional purposes, he had to be his own avatar: I couldn’t allow myself to put words into the mouth of a genius. That would have been wrong. But I think my overall wager is sound. Murmur tries to find a dramatic paraphrase for Turing’s physical, mental and political predicament. It asks: how does one fit the personal experience of trauma into a material conception of the world? The story’s scientist, Alec Pyror, discovers that the outward responses one gives to the world are not necessarily related to the inner life, which may be crying out, in great distress. At the same time, the novel resists that pain. It’s the story of a man trying to overcome desolation and self-pity by objectifying the trauma.”

The judges of the Wellcome Prize, awarded to pieces of exceptional scientific writing, were left stunned by the impact of the novel. The judges called it an “extraordinary contemplation of consciousness” and “a feverish meditation on love, state-sanctioned homophobia and knowledge, alongside an exploration of sexuality, identity and artificial intelligence”.

Chair of judges, the novelist Elif Shafak, called Murmur “hugely impressive”, adding that it “will grip you in the very first pages, break your heart halfway through, and in the end, strangely, unexpectedly, restore your faith in human beings, and their endless capacity for resilience”.

“Every sentence, each character … is well-thought, beautifully written and yet there is a quiet modesty all the way through that is impossible not to admire,” said Shafak. “Whether he intended this or not, Will Eaves has given us a future classic and for this, we are grateful to him.”

Given the subject matter, the skill of the writer and the breadth of the novel’s scope, it is perhaps no surprise that Murmur is already being hailed as a groundbreaking piece of fiction that will influence readers for years to come. As Nothing in the Rulebook‘s own Professor Wu noted: “Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into an incredible world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence, written all the while with skill, care, and attention. What’s not to love?”

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