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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Book Review: The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

I picked up this book from one of the tables in Waterstone's, proving that sometimes they put a gem amongst the popular autobiographies that drive me up the wall. The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 and the consensus amongst critics seems to be that iy should certainly have won. After reading, I can only agree.

Galgut approaches his setting delicately. The barren landscape which he imprints onto his reader could easily have been over-described but he highlights detail impeccably. The trees are 'ragged', the fountain is 'dry and full of old sand at the bottom'. Nor does he fail in creating a complete picture. By the end of the novel the town is a vivid image, solidified in the reader's head by a vast array of details, most of which exuded a brown murky colour into my imagination.

Indeed, in many ways this is a colourless novel. It deals with change: aversion to it, reaction to it, pursuance of it. In a nutshell, the narrator, Frank, works at a hospital which is unused and desolate. It was built as a symbol and remains one, even as the people supposedly working there see their lives passing unnoticed. The status quo is upset by a new arrival, Laurence, who sees the emptiness and, in a rather idealistic fashion, wants to create a functioning hospital from what is currently an empty shell. That's the main plot, although Galgut skilfully weaves in subplots and incidental characters whose reverberations contribute to the book as a whole.

It's a relatively short book at just over two hundred pages, but easily one that could be completed in one sitting. I allowed myself to be swept away by the simplicity of Galgut's prose whilst marvelling in his ability to take on massive issues and convey them without lecturing. It's a strength of his characterisation that at no point does the novel feel like a history lesson. Statements that could feel like sermons from a lesser writer slip easily out of the mouths of his characters.

For such a small book it's packed with information and detail. No sentence feels superfluous; no description incidental. There are scenes that I feel end too soon but that's as much about personal preference as any serious reflection on the book.

Simply put, this is one of the most thought-provoking and haunting novels I've read in a long time and I have a feeling I'll be revisiting it soon.

The Good Doctor is available here.

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