Hospital dramas abound on TV – Holby City, Gray’s Anatomy, ER, House to name but a few. Not as ubiquitous as crime but oddly it’s rarely a theme in fiction. This post isn’t all about hospitals but it does explore something which affects every one of us, not least over the long pandemic. Here, then, are five novels with a medical theme all with links to my reviews.
Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a fable-like novella about the relationship between an elderly woman who walks into a confectioner’s shop, hoping to fill the vacancy advertised in its window, and the reluctant young baker who agrees to take her on. Sentaro opens every day selling his pancakes filled with sweet bean paste to rowdy schoolgirls and passers-by. When Tokue offers to work for next to nothing, he’s deeply sceptical – she’s seventy-six, frail and her hands are deformed – but soon sales soar and the schoolgirls are delighted with Tokue who listens to their problems. All seems well until rumours of Tokue’s Hansen’s disease – once known as leprosy – spread. Tokue tells Sentaro her story of state-enforced confinement despite the early cure of her condition, contracted when she was just fourteen. The social effects of Hansen’s disease, long eradicated in Japan but still a source of stigma and prejudice, provide a sobering backdrop to this engaging tale.
Tuberculosis carried a similar stigma for many years. Opening in 1949, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle follows a handful of TB patients in a palatial sanatorium at the dawn of the NHS. It’s there that working-class Miriam meets Valerie, freshly graduated from Oxford, outside on the veranda where they stay – quite literally – for months come rain or snow. When the longed for streptomycin treatment arrives, which only seven patients will receive, Lenny, her twin, and the cocky Arthur take things into their own hands with shocking results. A richly satisfying piece of storytelling peopled with vivid, sharply observed characters, Grant’s novel is also a paean of praise to the NHS which allowed Lenny and Miriam access to the cure that virtually stamped out TB in Britain.
Austin Duffy is both a practising oncologist and the author of two novels. The unnamed narrator of his debut, This Living and Immortal Thing, spends his days tucked away in a lab monitoring cancerous mice. Sitting outside on the smokers’ bench one day, he meets a young Russian woman who introduces herself as a volunteer translator. Our narrator has his own preoccupations but he can’t help but be interested in this attractive young woman given to wry pronouncements about doctors and their well-meaning uselessness. It seems their friendship might become something else until the real reason for Marya’s presence in the hospital becomes apparent. There’s a welcome vein of quietly dark humour running through Duffy’s clear-eyed and humane novel.
Like Duffy, Gabriel Weston is also a practising medic, a surgeon whose remarkably honest and compassionate account of her training, Direct Red, was much acclaimed. Dirty Work, her first novel, is written in the same quietly striking style. It follows Nancy, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, as she awaits a tribunal’s verdict on whether she’s fit to continue practising surgery after her patient suffers a catastrophic haemorrhage. Weston interweaves Nancy’s thoughts and fears about the tribunal’s investigation and her part in its procedures with vivid vignettes from her life. Gradually we come to understand that Nancy performs abortions. Readers will no doubt have strong views about that but whatever your standpoint Dirty Work will make you think about it again, perhaps in ways you don’t expect. It’s not a polemic for either pro-choice or anti-choice but it’s a novel that brings you face to face with harsh realities.
From one controversial practice to another, Stephen Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out is about assisted suicide, one of the great moral dilemmas of the twenty-first-century Western world where medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds but not the ethical framework for dealing with its unintended consequences. This sharp, funny novel follows Evan, a nurse trained in administering lethal injections, faced with a choice when his mother’s Parkinson’s worsens. Amsterdam’s novel is extraordinarily powerful, made all the more so by the knowledge of his own work as a palliative care nurse. No axes are ground here: the dilemmas that surround this vexed question are explored with compassion and humanity, leavened with a darkly sardonic humour. It’s a smart, though-provoking novel that pulls no punches from its hard-hitting opening chapter to its surprising end.
What about you – any novels with a medical theme you’d like to share?
If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.