‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut

The-Good-Doctor

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.

Compelling portrait

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.

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24 thoughts on “‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut

  1. So glad you liked this. Knowing you like Petterson, I think you will find some similarities in Galgut’s work. They are my two favourite contemporary writers. Both work best with the unspoken nuances of the tensions between people. I have read almost all of Galgut’s novels, mostly before my relatively recent entrance into book blogging, and had the opportunity to meet him last fall when he was at our word festival. I would highly recommend The Impostor and In a Strange Room, the two novels that followed The Good Doctor.

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  2. Ah, I would have never have made the connection with Petterson but now you mention it I can see similarities. The prose style is very simple and yet Galgut, like Petterson, is able to convey all kinds of nuance and tension.

    I have In a Strange Room on my pile, so I am itching to read it now. Thanks for the tip.

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  3. Yes, Rough Ghosts, well spotted, there is a similarity, both writing with such careful restraint about the interior man. But as Kim points out about these characters representing the old South Africa and the new, the causation seems so different. It seems to me that the characters in Galgut’s book *must* work through this new relationship because so much has been invested in shaping this new South Africa, and they dare not fracture it while it is so fragile, Whereas Petterson is (I think) depicting a long held culture of restraint and lack of openness. I haven’t been to northern Europe (unless you count St Petersburg) but years ago my English teacher who was of Swedish descent told me that many things inhibit a friendly openness in the Nordic countries: the weather, the landscape, the fact that the language doesn’t even have words for many things, and I have a Norwegian friend here who says the same. To me, Petterson seems like a young man questing to break open that wall of cultural reserve. (Mind you, in my travels around the world I have met some lovely sunny friendly Norwegian tourists, so everything I’ve said could be a load of old hogwash…)

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    • Sorry to be late in responding to this… been a bit busy since posting this review.

      I’d argue that Petterson is very much concerned with family relationships — in particular, how the order of your birth can affect your relationship with other siblings, and the problem of growing up with a volatile/violent father. In all his books he seems to be working through the ties that bind, as it were, and trying to reconcile his relationship with his dad.

      I’ve met/know many Scandinavians and visited Denmark several times, and I would certainly not describe them as reserved. They remind me of Australians, actually: forthright, not afraid to speak their minds, and friendly.

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  4. Interesting observations Lisa. Galgut has always written with a wisdom beyond his years and from a very early age. I think it has been difficult for South African writers to avoid facing the tensions in their newly defined nation, but when you see him placing his story elsewhere as in In A Strange Room or Arctic Summer (which are both very different works) those unspoken tensions are still central to his theme. Living in a northern country I often feel a great affinity to Petterson’s intimate backdrops, but then I am a huge fan of South African lit and recently returned from my first visit to that country. It is still a very complex and fragile place.

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    • I have In a Strange Room waiting on my Kindle, too — I’m looking forward to reading it, because if it’s anything like The Good Doctor, it will be a terrific read.

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      • For the record, The Impostor is spare and dark in a manner similar to The Good Doctor. In a Strange Room is the result of his attempts to write about actual trips that he took in his life, the result is exceptional and not like anything else.

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  5. Like Helen, I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, Kim. His prose style is quite remarkable, isn’t it? As you say, it appears simple and effortless and yet he manages to convey so much. Thanks for reminding me of this excellent novel.

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    • I really admire authors who can write with restraint and who don’t spell everything out; they treat their readers with intelligence, which means you can fill in the gaps yourself, which, in turn, makes the reading experience so much richer.

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  6. Same, I haven’t heard of him either and I’m very surprised that my local library has 2 copies of this book. Of course, I had to reserve one 🙂

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    • Pleased to hear your library has him in stock: librarians obviously love him, seeing as it is librarians who nominate books for the Dublin IMPAC award, which he was shortlisted for in 2005. Be interested in hearing what you think of this if you do get around to reading it…

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  7. I still think this is Galgut’s best book (though I haven’t read Arctic summer yet) – one I have often recommended to people. I very much enjoyed being reminded of it
    This seems a much more political work than Petterson’s.

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  8. Back in 2003, I went to a multi-author reading to see someone else, and Galgut blew me away reading from The Good Doctor. I got a signed copy and remember really loving it. I’m glad you called it “dream-like,” because what little I remember of it now feels like a dream. Glad to learn it holds up well.

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    • Thanks, Bradley. A great reading by an author can certainly make an impression — sounds like Galgut’s reading made a lasting one on you. Thanks for your comment.

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