Thursday 5 January 2012

REVIEW: Direct Red - A Surgeon's Story, by Gabriel Weston (4*)

(Vintage, 2010)

I picked this up on a whim, out of a bag of incoming books at the shop, because I've rather enjoyed other 'medical memoirs' I've read in the past.  I find them fascinating, perhaps because the medical profession is such a world apart - men and women caring for every kind of person in every kind of difficult situation, often at absolutely critical moments in their lives.  Gabriel Weston's surgical memoir is definitely the best of the bunch so far, and I can see why it was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award in 2009.

Weston is a surgeon in a big-city English hospital.  Her book is divided into short, deftly-titled chapters, providing themes for her anecdotes and creating an interesting structure.  'Speed', for example, illustrates the importance of quick thinking and rapid action in saving lives; 'Hierarchy' delves into the power relations of a surgical ward, and 'Children' covers her time in the paediatric emergency room and children's department.  Theming each section allows Weston to move around in time and to make important points about the surgical profession without muddling her narrative, and it really worked for me.

This is a beautifully written book that rings with the precise and matter-of-fact detail that a surgeon's eye is trained to notice.  Weston's disclaimer points out that no one character or situation here is 'true' - but I don't think it really matters, because at the book's heart is a thoroughly authentic and experienced voice.  There were some heartbreaking moments and some charming ones, some lyrical descriptions and some blisteringly earthy ones.  Far from being frightened by the graphic surgical scenes, I found myself reassured by how much the human body can withstand, and how much a surgical team can do to mend it when it is broken.  Highly recommended - though if you're squeamish you should probably give this one a miss!

Source: I borrowed this book from our bookshop shelves.