The Night Interns by Austin Duffy
The final week’s theme for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca is contemporary novellas. I actually read this back in late September, but was planning to pair it with Adam Kay’s Undoctored for Non-Fiction November. That didn’t happen, so I’ve had a quick refresh to remind myself what happened in this dark novella which I had to acquire after reading Susan’s review here. It comes in at slightly over 200 pages, but the text isn’t tiny, and there’s white space on the pages, so I’m happy to call it a novella still.
Duffy is an oncologist at Dublin’s Mater hospital. His first two novels, which I haven’t read, were both set in New York; his debut This Living and Immortal Thing is narrated by an oncologist. For his third novel, he turns the clock back to explore life as an intern, seen through the eyes of three recent medical graduates on rotation on the at a Dublin hospital. He concentrates on their night shifts, when they could be called to attend any patients, not just surgical, and the most important thing is not to get their residents, SHOs, or heaven forbid, consultants out of bed.
In an interview in the Guardian, Duffy says of the new intern:
“You’re thrust into this world where you quickly find out the inadequacy of the theoretical knowledge you’re relying on from your studies. I wanted to immerse the reader in the terror – maybe that’s too strong a word, maybe it isn’t – of being on call and being asked to be the first person to figure things out for people who are sick.”
The other two interns have very different personalities, Lynda is ambitious and confident, Stuart is indecisive and not good at inserting canulas, he tends to leave that task for our narrator – who is never named. During day shifts they are assigned to different wards with different consultants and their finicky habits to deal with. At night, they start by working as a threesome, all three of them going to each call – the novel begins with an elderly patient in Cheyne-Stokes respiration – not long to go. The nurses page the interns who are only able to offer reassurances to the relatives that the patient is not in pain. It works, but Lynda doesn’t feel it is a good use of their/her time. She says that other shifts split the work, or they take turns so the others can nap. You can almost predict that this’ll end up in a disaster for one of them, a disaster which could affect all three too; we don’t expect that it’ll be Lynda who has that disaster, and she is off for some time afterwards. Without her there, Stuart begins to come into his own, and the narrator finds he’s struggling even more with his registrar and consultant.
Duffy’s prose really captures that ‘terror’. By the time these interns will become fully fledged junior doctors in a couple of years, they’ll have got the hang of things in general but, as Simon Stephenson’s brilliant medical thriller Sometimes People Die (reviewed here) demonstrates, an element of that terror always remains, at least until you get to be called ‘Mister’! Again, Duffy captures that in the behaviour of the narrator’s registrar once things get awkward for them.
It does make one wonder whether hospital hierarchies will ever grow out of the pompous and bombastic consultant surgeon character types that seem to dominate – at least in hospital-set novels!
I very much enjoyed this novel, however bleak he made the life of the new doctor on rotation seem.
Source: Own copy. Granta Books, C format paperback, 208 pages BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)