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Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures

September 1, 2012

I read this a few years ago, a birthday present from a friend. I remember not caring for it that much. However, after an enlightening special study module in Medical Humanities, I thought I ought to give this book another chance.


Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is a series of short stories featuring four young doctors. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood on the cover blurb, it presents the good news that doctors are human. The bad news is that doctors are human. Instead of the ideal Hippocratic healers that we want/imagine them to be, the stories portray doctors as angry, doubtful and flawed creatures.

The book opens as pre-med students Fitzgerald and Ming strive towards admission to medical school, while at the same time dealing with the most placid love affair in literature. Ming is accepted to the University of Toronto while Fitz has to try again later. In her first year anatomy, she is paired with Sri and Chen. In the next year, Fitz too is accepted and thus the main cast is assembled.

Describing the plot is largely pointless as the stories are more about the examination of their characters than their actions. Over the course of 300-odd pages, they cover a great deal of medicine. A&E, obstetrics, psychiatry, and the flying doctors. Despite the episodic nature of the book, there is nil evidence of character progression. In the opening pages, Fitz is introduced as having a problem with alcohol and that becomes his only tune throughout the rest of the book.

The only saving grace (and probably the one reason why I decided to return to this book) is one of the last chapters, set during the 2002 SARS pandemic, where two of the doctors become patients in the quarantine ward. A genuinely interesting chapter.

The writing is good but unbearably purple. Sometimes, the precise but novel descriptors are used to good effect but at other times, it simply comes across as unnecessary waffle. Furthermore, the writing jumps between the third and first-person narratives for different chapters. I don’t have a problem with this. I can even abide using the first-person for different characters, in their respective chapters. However, because the writing is always the same precise, prosaic, purple prose, you never get a distinct feel for the characters. Worse still, this style pervades even when characters would reasonably lack the time or the capacity to narrate in such a fashion. As such, the storytelling becomes quite separated from the story.

Also, though written by a doctor, it lacks a certain amount of humour and spirit.

After further education and maturity, as well as being closer to doctorhood than previously, I thought I might look on this book in a different light. However, I am convinced that my impression was right the first time. Read it, if you want, but you’re not missing much if you don’t.


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