Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bridget Jones in Scrubs

Review of Karma Suture,Rosamund Kendal, Jacana

It’s the end of another long, tiring day for GP Sue Carey. She’s wearing green surgery pants, as she had yet more body fluid spilled over her during the course of the day, and she hasn’t eaten anything more nourishing than a giant slice of cheesecake.

She’s just 28 years old, still single after a broken engagement, ginger-haired rather than auburn, sleek and more zaftig than svelte. She works 24-hour shifts at a time to pay off her huge medical bills, dashes from one hospital to another, and in between tries to relax, socialise, be a good friend to one who is slowly becoming addicted to drugs and anorexia, and meet men so she can have another relationship to endure, so she doesn’t end up alone with only a cat for company. Oh yes, to add to all this, she joins a philosophy class.

If this already sounds too much like chick lit, it’s anything but. A simple précis may read like some kind of doctor/local Bridget Jones number, but Karma Suture presents something deeper and more profound. On one level this is a fairly light story: the trials and tribulations of an exhausted, overwrought young doctor still struggling to find her feet in the world, if not the hospital.

But it also presents an astonishing portrait of what really goes on in government hospitals and the doctors who work in them. Author Rosamund Kendal is herself a medical doctor who practises in KwaZulu-Natal, dividing her time between medicine and creative writing. So clearly she knows what she is talking about.

Sue Carey is a likeable, fun character, and you get to laugh and love and empathise with her, but the secondary plotline – that of life in a hospital for the medical personnel – provides a compelling read that is gripping.

No amount of newspaper reports can as accurately describe the minutiae and day-to-day realities of life in our hospitals, from bed shortages and negotiations with other departments to clear the said beds; to treatments that don’t happen, or happen too late; to diabetic patients guiltily wiping away pie crumbs after downing Cokes and nodding yes to doctor when she suggests other foods, but all in vain, as some patients will go back to what is easiest.

There are weekend stabbings, gang members and family members battling it out with broken bits of bottles, only to somehow become the best of buddies the next day. There are young girls who decide to take overdoses at four in the morning. It’s no wonder the doctor on duty is short-tempered and irritable. And then the scourge of Aids: anyone who doubts its insidious presence need only to walk the wards of Bellville (where Sue mainly works), or any other large hospital. People are dying, and they are dying of Aids, over and over. And yet each receives a different “cause of death”, pneumonia for instance, as patient confidentiality prevents writing the truth.

Revolving around Sue the doctor are the accoutrements of her personal life. Her flatmate Leah, soon to snuggle up to married life; model Gina, skinny, getting high on drugs to stay that way; and Carol from the philosophy class, who becomes more than a friend.

Sue copes with the tensions of being a doctor by having more than the occasional one-night stands. Then she does get involved with a dishy young doctor and the path is not smooth (when is it ever?), but by now you’re cheering her on.

This book also reads a bit like one in a series – you wouldn’t mind hearing more; by the end you are really in sympathy with this slightly kooky, but loveable doctor. How did she get to where she is? You’d like to know more about her years of training or studying, and of course, what happens next?

Perhaps author Kendal will tell us in due course.

(Published in The Star Tonight, May 2008)

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