Summary: Talented young doctor Alec Gordon is mystified by a fever killing otherwise healthy new mothers. His methods to treat it are greeted with scepticism and are mostly unsuccessful. His accounts show that he is treating many more patients than can afford to pay for his services, and his colleagues at the hospital are not keen on his candour and lack of politics. At home, his wife is struggling with depression and flashbacks of her life in the West Indies. Based on a true story.
I know that the book is based on a true story, although you always have to wonder how much is “true story” and much is artistic licence… but the succession of deaths and the increasingly brutal methods attempting to save the mothers are shocking enough without knowing that it did actually happen! In the postscript, the author points out that the fever which was eventually discovered is still a major cause of death in less developed countries. As I found with The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the historical aspect of medicine was fascinating – the ways which were accepted as best practice now seem almost barbaric.
I also thought that the demonstration of the social mix was an interesting idea and well-developed: the idea of a young doctor from a poor background, with a lawyer and a farmer for brothers, marrying into a once affluent family with sugar plantations in the West Indies; the settled politics and hostility to an outsider, particularly one who won’t play by the rules, etc.
I thought Alec Gordon was a bit too perfect and Elizabeth a bit too useless – in fact I found all the characters a little polarised, although Robbie was pleasantly well-rounded. Elizabeth had her own sub-story – her malaise at home, waiting for her husband to come back from house calls at the ends of the city, her detachment from her child – with which I didn’t have much patience. The marriage was depicted as very bitter, which seemed out of keeping with the two characters.
A pleasant and informative read, but not about to trouble literary prize committees.