Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 216 pages; 2011.
The end of the year might be four months off, but Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor is certainly going to be on my list of favourite reads for 2015. I read it over the course of a couple of days, but every time I put the book down, I kept thinking about it, and now, a fortnight later, the characters and the story still remain with me — the sign of an exceptionally good novel.
Two doctors, two room-mates
First published in 2003, The Good Doctor is set in the “new” post-apartheid South Africa. It tells the story of Frank Eloff, a staff doctor working in a deserted rural hospital, who is forced to share his room with a blow-in: a younger doctor, Laurence Waters, who is newly qualified, green behind the years and brimming with energy and new ideas.
From the very start, Frank, who narrates the story in a cool yet forthright manner, is unhappy about Laurence’s arrival:
When he said, ‘I would never do that to you,’ he was telling me that he was a true friend. I think he felt that way almost from the first day. Yet the feeling wasn’t mutual. He was a room-mate to me, a temporary presence who was disturbing my life.
But despite Frank’s best efforts not to become too close to his new colleague, he finds himself drawn into Laurence’s orbit. Yet Frank has secrets he wishes to keep — an affair with a black woman living outside the village, for instance, and a troubled past in the army — which makes it difficult for him to truly open up to the man everyone thinks is his best friend. This creates a narrative tension, a kind of suspenseful atmosphere, that builds throughout the story.
This is aided by the sudden arrival in the village of a group of soldiers and an Army General — from Frank’s dark past — who are on the trail of a self-made dictator from the apartheid era rumoured to be living nearby.
But, to be honest, there’s not much of a plot. The book works on the basis of simple yet effortless writing, which makes for an effortless, almost dream-like read — the closest thing to floating on clouds — and a compelling portrait of two men and the friendship that develops between them over time.
It’s also an intriguing look at what happens to people living in isolated communities, where relationships between people can become strained and oppressive because they are living in such close proximity to one another: privacy is non-existent, which might go some way to explaining Frank’s fierce protection of what little private life he does have.
Essentially, the two doctors could be seen to be a metaphor for “old” and “new” South Africa: Frank is set in his ways, a loner, comfortable in his own skin, who resents change; while Laurence is idealistic, passionate and eager to take on new responsibilities in order to prove himself. Neither is unlikable but they are poles apart — in so many different ways.
I looked at him, but I didn’t see him. I was seeing something else. A picture had come to me, and it was of Laurence and me as two strands in a rope. We were twined together in a tension that united us; we were different to each other, though it was in our nature to be joined and woven in this way. As for the points that we were spanned between — a rope doesn’t know what its own purpose is.
This is a dramatic story about guilt and honour, loyalty and friendship, politics and fear — and probably the best book I’ve read all summer.
The Good Doctor won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book from the Africa region and was shortlisted for both the 2003 Man Booker Prize and the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.