So the shadow panel (Rebecca of Bookish Beck, Clare of A Little Blog of Books, Laura of Dr. Laura Tisdall, Paul of Halfman, Halfbook and I) managed to pick half a dozen from the 19 books we longlisted – some picked themselves, others needed a bit of discussion and a deciding vote. The six are:
- Exhalation by Ted Chiang
- Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
- Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
- The Nocturnal Brain by Guy Leschziner
- The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman
- War Doctor by David Nott
Because this was an unofficial tour, we’ve not all been able to have access to all of the books – so made our decisions based on feedback from the blog tour, other media reviews etc. I’m extremely keen to read Ted Chiang’s SF short story collection Exhalation, and The Nocturnal Brain really appeals too, but I have fully read two of the list above, so here are my thoughts on them…
War Doctor by David Nott
It takes a particular type of personality to become a top surgeon, and David Nott was well on the way to that as a new consultant surgeon in general and vascular surgery. But that wasn’t enough for him – shocked at what he was seeing on the television in war zones, particularly the number of civilian casualties, he felt a calling to help as a trauma surgeon, volunteering to travel to warzones with organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières and Syria Relief.
More often than not, he’d arrive at a destination to discover that senior surgeons had left, leaving very dedicated but inexperienced junior surgeons, doctors and nurses to do their best. But even Nott could learn too, never having performed a caesarean section – he learned from another surgeon on the job in Kabul. With each tour, he learned more surgical trauma techniques, and as his expertise grew, he started to develop courses to train surgeons from all over the world, becoming recognised as a world-leading trauma surgeon.
Operating in a war zone must be gut-wrenchingly harrowing – he describes many terrible occasions – being the only one left in the power-cut struck operating theatre with his hands in a boy’s guts, stopping him bleeding, dealing with the deadly point-scoring ‘games’ the snipers played in Aleppo, aiming for particular parts of the body, sheer carnage long day after long day. Being the only Westerner in Aleppo, fairer-haired and non-bearded, Nott was also in real danger of being kidnapped and executed if discovered, and those helping him too of course.
It’s no wonder that each time he returned, be it from Sarajevo, Africa or the Middle East, that it took time to reacclimatise. But soon, he’d be itching to go back, he was becoming addicted to it and as a single man, had no dependents to stay for – until he met Elly. Nott is quite candid about the toll on his own mental health, he tells a particularly touching story about meeting the Queen – and her corgis. Nott and Elly now run the David Nott Foundation, a charity they co-founded, to train trauma surgeons in the UK and abroad and fund surgical missions to war zones.
Aside from the scene-setting politics, this memoir is full of wonderful humanitarian stories, not least those of the other surgeons in those war zones who became his close friends. He helped some of the Syrian doctors to escape from Aleppo from afar by putting diplomatic pressure on the governments/embassies of those nations involved out there to create a safe passage for them. His wife describes them as being like brothers to him in her afterword. There is no doubting the passion and surgical skill that pours off these pages. This was a rewarding, if slightly long, memoir to read but I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)
Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
I loved every page of this book. (10/10). I will expand on that a little more, but urge you if you see this book to pick it up.
Gleeson’s beautifully written collection of essays on her life, her health, pain and illness, pregnancy, motherhood, and being a woman in Ireland are deeply personal, yet speak volumes.
The chapters, each preceded with a constellation from the map of the night sky, are richly varied in style. They range from full essays to short pieces on a single theme, a chapter of short one paragraph vignettes about the experience of being in hospital (that reminded me of Jenny Offill’s style, see the quotation below), and closing with a poem written to her daughter.
A patient is not a person.
A patient is a medicalised version of the self.
A patient is a hospitalised double of the body
To become a patient is an act of transmutation, from well to sick, liberated citizen to confined inpatient.
One chapter that resonated was about abortion, only legalised in Ireland in 2018 and she alternates her story of campaigning for this, with ‘twelve stories of bodily autonomy for the twelve a day who left’.
It’s not all gloom though, and Gleeson throws in a paraphrase of Austen’s famous opening line to being the chapter on pregnancy to make us giggle:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a womb and a decent supply of eggs must be in want of a child.
Gleeson explores her themes in elegant prose and poetry with not a word wasted. She questions, explains, understands, writing through pain, but also shows her joie de vivre. Superb!
Read also: Jackie’s reviews of both of these books for the Not The Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour HERE.