Five Books I’ve Read with a Medical Theme

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.

Cover image for Sweet Bean Paste by Durian SukegawaDurian 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.Cover image for The Dark Circle by Linda Grant 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.

Cover image for Dirty Work by Gabriel WestonLike 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 Cover image for The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdammoral 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.

41 thoughts on “Five Books I’ve Read with a Medical Theme”

    1. You’re welcome, Claire, and nice to have a hint of what you’re working on. You might also find Bookish Beck’s blog helpful as she has a keen interest in this theme. I’m sure she’ll add a comment at some stage suggesting other titles.

      1. Ooh, that makes me more excited for Claire’s next book! Surprisingly, I’ve only read one of these (The Dark Circle). There are far too many options to recommend, but a few personal favourites, as novels go, are Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown, Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss, and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. A look through the Wellcome Book Prize longlists will bring up more ideas. (I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction on a medical theme.)

    2. I love books with a medical theme. I feel like I read more about mental illnesses than physical illnesses these days, but both fascinate me. Sweet Bean Paste sounds especially good to me!

      1. Sweet Bean Paste is rather lovely and taught me a lot. Coincidentally our street is built in the grounds of what was known as the leper hospital, the oldest building in the city.

  1. Dirty Work was certainly thought-provoking and brilliantly written.
    Most of the medical books I read are non-fiction, but one well worth sharing is The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams – a graphic novel about a GP’s life. Very funny, warts ‘n’ all, but also touching in the homelife strand where she is reconnecting with her mother.

  2. Because I worked for years in healthcare, and now in a healthcare charity, I tend to avoid books with a medical theme as either they stress me out by being too realistic or infuriate me by being completely inaccurate! But having said that, I loved Sweet Bean Paste and I have The Dark Circle in the TBR…

    1. I can see neither is desirable! The social aspect of Sweet Bean Paste was a real eye-opener for me and a lovely read, too. I hope you enjoy The Dark Circle when you get to it.

  3. I was about to say exactly what Madame B has already said – working in the NHS for most of my career makes me reluctant to read medical themed books. However books with other major themes often have a minor medical theme. The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs is a vintage mystery, but it gives a great look at that period when the NHS was just beginning, and there were still unqualified, or qualified by experience, practitioners working in competition with the new GPs.

  4. Great recommendations! I loved The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal. In Canada, where I live, the book is called Mend the Living. It is translated from French and is the story behind a heart transplant. It reads like a thriller and the writing is luminous. And while the book is tragic on one level, I saw it as a hopeful book. It really highlights the miracle of medical science.

    1. Thank so much, both for your kind words and the de Kerangal recommendation. I’ll add Mend the Living to my tbr list. I recently read and enjoyed her new novel, Painting Time.

          1. Out of interest, how are translators credited in North America? We’re really not good at it here in the UK. For instance the translator’s name often doesn’t appear on a book’s jacket.

          2. I don’t fully know the answer to this. I think it depends. The translator is not always mentioned on the cover here either. In the case of Jessica Moore she is front and centre on the cover of Mend the Living and Painting Time. When you read these books in English, they don’t feel translated to me. A French friend read them both and she said that Jessica made interesting choices and in some cases she felt that the English translation might surpass the French version. Jessica is a writer herself. My guess is they have a special relationship like a musician and a songwriter?

          3. That sounds like a good analogy. I’m sure the best translators have close relationships with the authors whose work they translate. Your French friend’s observation is such a compliment to Moore. I’d certainly agree that Painting Time was beautifully done.

  5. one of the first books I remember inhaling on this theme was Erich Segal’s Doctors, a deliciously soapy companion to Class (about lawyers). Heheh They might not hold the same appeal for me now.

  6. I think you’ve sold me on all of these but especially Sweet Bean Paste.

    The only medical related novel I can think of is The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith which imagines a world where antibiotics have been over-used for so long they no longer work. They have to be rationed, restricted to those under the age of 70.

  7. Great Post. I love the sound of Dark Circle. I don’t know if I have read a huge number of medical themed books. A couple of very old books spring to mind, Yeomans Hospital by Helen Ashton and My Brother Jonathan by Francis Brett Young. I like reading about doctors etc in the past.

  8. I enjoy books with a medical theme, so my thoughts are going in a million directions. On the particular theme of tuberculosis, The Golden Hour by Joan London comes to mind. And assisted dying – one I read recently, Nunez’s What Are You Going Through.

    1. Isn’t it? Crime is everywhere on TV and in fiction but, statistically, few of us will experience much of it yet we all have to deal with health problems, both our own and those of the people we love.

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