THE GOOD DOCTOR by Damon Galgut
You know there will be no happy ending when the opening line is 'The first time I saw him I thought, he won't last.' The first two pages are full of words like - tall, thin, dusty, empty, frail, wilting, burden of leaves, ragged trees, basic standard issue, ugly, austere - and the best one of all which sums up the whole mood of the book - bleak. What a writer this man is. From beginning to end the reader is taken on slowly unwinding spool of inevitable tragedy. Danger and a sense of foreboding is all around, as is the disintegration of the physical surroundings and the people themselves.
In the confusion of post-Apartheid South Africa, Dr Frank Eloff is a white doctor who has been working for seven years in a hospital in a remote rural outpost. The town was once the 'capital' of one of the many homelands set up by the apartheid government for self rule by the local tribal groups. There was a president, a flag, a parliament, statues of venerable leaders, in this case the Dictator, in the town square - all the trappings but none of the clout. Now there are no longer the trappings, with empty buildings and bits of statues strewn around the desolate country side. What rules now is violence, suspicion and despondency.
The hospital has gradually been allowed to become more rundown and neglected, staff who leave not being replaced, equipment and fittings slowly disappearing and not being replaced. The black doctor in charge does not want to be there but is powerless to move. Frank no longer really cares, and has come to see the hospital as his refuge from a messed up personal life. Into all this one day walks young recently graduated doctor Laurence Waters, who is on a one year's compulsory community medical practice stint. Being young, idealistic and energetic he wants to make a difference and so has chosen this particular derelict rundown operation to leave his mark.
His arrival, quite simply, upsets the proverbial apple cart. He has ideas, plans, wants to explore, asks too many questions, wants to put things right and in the process upsets the delicate balance between the various groups within the local community. The opposing personalities of Frank and Laurence are at the core of the novel, much like the new South Africa - the old being supplanted by the new. Being the only white men on site, (there is also a doctor husband and wife team from Cuba), Frank is forced to share his room with him. As a result, both unintentionally and deliberately, they constantly irritate each other and this becomes the undoing of both of them.
Damon Galgut is South African and grew up during the turbulent and dark times of the 1960s and 1970s, coming to adult hood in the early 1980s. This was his first novel and made such an immediate impression it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. He pulls no punches with what he thinks of the current state of his country of birth, and what it has become. He also appears to have little hope for the future of the country.
But the book does end on a hopeful note, with Frank finally having achieved his goal of being head of the hospital and the many challenges that brings. There is a sense of hope and contentment in Frank's world, although maybe after seven years he has become so part of the local community he works in that he can't actually see a way out.
THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC by Julie Otsuka
A little book of 129 pages, with the most perfect writing. Seven chapters with deceptively simple titles such as 'Babies', 'Traitors', 'Last Day' that capture so poignantly and sadly the lives of a group of Japanese women, ranging in age from 13 to late forties. Early last century, they journeyed by boat from Japan to San Francisco to marry Japanese men they had never met. Apparently hundreds of Japanese women were such mail order brides to America. The book finishes during World War II with the arrest/internment of all those of Japanese descent into camps for the duration of the war. How does a writer sum all that these women went through in just 129 pages?
The author does not use just one voice, or just one person's story, but brilliantly tells numerous stories at any one time by using the collective 'we'. So the chapter titled 'Babies' which is all of five pages long has a few hundred sentences, each one beginning with the word 'we' describing in just one sentence a different experience of giving birth in this new country. So even though the reader only gets a snap shot of any one woman's life, collectively we learn an enormous amount about the overall life of each woman. It is very very clever, very very effective and hardly surprising that this book has won a number of American writing awards.
The author, of Japanese descent, herself has based this story on her own family's experiences after the Pearl Harbour bombing. It is written with such love, tenderness and sense of loss, that the story stays for quite some time after finishing. This is the shortest review I think I have done, but I don't need to tell you anymore about this book. It can be read in one sitting, and fully deserves to be. Unlike many books I read, I am so glad I bought this one because I get to keep it.
THE SEALED LETTER by Emma Donoghue
Before she wrote the riveting 'Room', this Irish author wrote 'The Sealed Letter'. And it couldn't be more different from 'Room'. Based on an actual event and real people, this story is about three individuals in Victorian London who, to their peril, find themselves up against the Establishment, fighting for their honour and good names.
Vice-Admiral Harry Codrington is a career navy man from a family with a sterling military pedigree. He is married to the much younger beautiful and enchanting Helen, with whom he has had two young daughters. Recently returned to London from a posting in Malta, both Harry and Helen are not finding the return to the more restrained and proper society of London very easy. By chance, Helen one day literally runs into her former confidante and companion Miss Emily Faithfull. Fido, as she is known, is an unmarried woman, late twenties, who is a true blue feminist, involved in various causes, as well as being the owner/manager of a successful printing business.
Suddenly Fido finds herself drawn back into the unhappy marriage of Harry and Helen, and the disastrous fall out that results from Helen's adulterous affairs. As befits the mores of the time, there is a huge scandal, and a high profile court case as Harry petitions to divorce his wife. As well as producing the usual evidence gathered by a private detective and bizarrely a dress with a suggestive stain on it (this actually happened - move over Bill Clinton), he also tries to discredit Helen by bringing into question the true nature of the friendship between the two women. Back then, if the woman can be proved to be at fault, as well as being tarnished with the label 'divorcee' she also lost all custody, rights to money, marital property, care and any involvement at all with her children - she may as well be dead. No doubt this kept many marriages together. But for someone like Fido, fiercely committed to the rights of women, dealing with this and the rumours swirling around, all placed her between a rock and a hard place.
The actual trial and the subsequent mind games don't occur till the last third of the book. So the majority of the book is the background to the situation, the setting up of the relationships, the careful manipulations. It is so well done and so well thought out that by the time of the trial, we realise that all three people are as much victims of each other as well as of the society they live in. Who would want to live in Victorian England? The poor had a terrible time - Dickens - but the rich or richer, especially if female, didn't really have a much better time.
Although based on fact and real people, the author seems to have created her own versions of Harry, Helen and Fido. No doubt they bear some resemblance to the real people, but they may also enable her to highlight the hypocrisy of the times, as well as the dangerous path many women trod, whether they were unhappily married mothers or independent unmarried businesswomen. Were you allowed to be either way back then? I'm just glad that I was born one hundred plus years later!