February Releases by de Visser, George, Lawson, and Smiley

Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.

 

That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser

[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]

Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.

Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.

Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.

One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.

As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.

Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”

With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.

 

A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George

Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.

 

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.

1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.

As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.

Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)

A favorite passage:

[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.

With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.

 

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley

(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)

My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”

Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.

I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)

I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

27 responses

  1. The de Visser sounds great. I’d be particularly interested to read about euthanasia from the Dutch perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy to save my proof for you — I’ve got another little pile building up 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, that would be great! I’ll let you know if I have any proofs you might be interested in, unfortunately I don’t get many in hard copy.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m usually a keen Smiley fan but won’t be reading The Strays of Paris. The Lawson looks much more up my street.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was more akin to her YA horse series than to her adult lit fic.

      The Lawson is definitely one for you! I’m sad I only have one more of her books to look forward to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I only liked it a little bit more than you! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yep! I thought because you loved The Boy, the Mole… you might have liked it even more.

        Like

  3. I like the look of A Still Life, thanks for putting it on my radar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m pleased you’re interested. It’s a lovely book more people need to know about.

      Like

  4. A Still Life sounds wonderful – definitely going to check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a very special book. If you don’t follow her already, she’s @porridgebrain on Twitter.

      Like

  5. The de Visser book attracts me the most, and the stories in it you chose to highlight are revealing for emphasising how much connections between doctor and patient matter, for the mental health of all concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Aww, just read the last remaining Mary Lawson. Backlisted books could use some love alongside the shiny ones, and you can always reread them right?! 🙂 Glad to hear that the new one lived up to your expectations. I do love how she gently nestles narratives together, how each of her characters is paid respect and afforded dignity. You’d think that’d always be the case, but something about her writing makes it clear that it’s not always true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you know this latest Lawson? I feel like I haven’t seen many reviews of it, though it’s only just out in Canada as well as the UK.

      I tend to do this, almost like a superstition: leave one book unread by each of my favourites (e.g. A.S. Byatt and David Lodge) in case they don’t come out with another.

      Like

      1. I do the same thing! But partly because of our shared Shields’ experiences over the past year, and realizing just how LITTLE (or how wrongly LOL) I remember certain things about books, I’ve started to think that I should just read and enjoy and plan to reread, rather than save.

        I feel like Lawson’s Bridge book got very little attention here too. But there are 447 holds on 93 copies even with the first set of 93 just having been filled, so there are a lot of readers in Toronto paying close attention to Lawson’s latest, by the looks of it. (Just in comparison to the stat’s for the Bennet book, for your amusement.)

        Like

  7. I really do not fancy the Smiley and I say that as a happy reader of her YA horse books!! I really don’t like The Boy, The Horse … though, either (winces).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! And fair enough. (I thought The Boy, The Horse… was so twee.)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Do you know here it is almost March and I haven’t yet read a published-in-2021 book yet? I have two on hold from the library right now – the Survivors by Jane Harper and The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, I thought you’d be all over the library new releases 🙂

      Like

      1. Apparently I’m in the mood for backlist so far!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That’s cool! I like to dabble in both.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m glad to hear you liked Lawson’s new book. I love the green building on the cover!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to say, I prefer this cover to the Canadian one, which has nice sunset colours but a font that seems all wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air, Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace, and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental […]

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  11. […] study of assisted dying, The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart, at the same time, and I’d also read That One Patient, a collection of interviews with Dutch medical professionals, some of whom have helped terminally […]

    Like

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