Wow, what a high to end my reading journal on! I absolutely devoured this book (not sure how I missed it when it first came out).
At first I found something about Shuker’s prose slightly hard to read – I think it was the strange, slightly jarring rhythm to his sentences (repeated uses of ‘and’ and no commas). But then when I came to write this journal entry and went looking for an example to put here, I couldn’t find one or understand what tripped me up in the first place. (I wouldn’t mention this except that another reader in my class said exactly the same thing, so there must be something unusual about his style but once you get used to it you can’t see it anymore.)
Having said that, I completely agree with the review of this novel by Steve Walker, which was published on Stuff, and which said: ‘The first 20 pages of this novel are stunning.’
Yes, and I would go further and say the whole novel was pretty stunning.
The book is incredibly gripping. I just found so much in it that I loved. For starters, the dialogue was natural. Almost to the point of being hard in places to understand (especially during surgery when an ordinary layperson might already struggle). I always admire authors who have the guts to write things as they’re said without worrying if the reader will understand. In my own writing, I think I too often back down from this and adjust the dialogue to make it easy to follow. Shuker effortlessly captures not just the way people sound when they talk but the subtext behind their words. I had the feeling reading these conversations between doctors, patients, friends, that if I blinked I would miss something crucial.
I loved the Wellington setting. Shuker’s main character is a female surgeon who lives in Newtown and spends most of her time at Wellington Hospital, and at the time I was reading this, I was writing a section of my book (the last section) that happens to take place entirely within Wellington Hospital. This was a complete coincidence (I found the book at the local second-hand bookshop). Of course, straight away I noticed the differences in the way we were handling setting. Shuker calls the hospital café ‘Wishbone’, not seeming to care if the reader knows what ‘Wishbone’ is. I wouldn’t have the courage for this (in my book it’s ‘the café’). Same with ‘Countdown’ (in mine ‘the supermarket’). The word that comes to mind when I think of this book is unflinching. Nothing is softened or made pretty or palatable for us. Even the character’s name – I mean, why choose Elizabeth Taylor, the name of a famous film star? It’s as if Shuker is saying, I’m not going to make any concessions for you, as if he is snapping his fingers at the reader to keep up.
(I’ve just realised that this style of narration mimics the way Elizabeth Taylor talks to her registrar – yikes, this book is so clever.)
About halfway through this book I began to think there were secret messages in it, put there especially for me. I’m joking of course – but there were some weird coincidences. First of all the fact that I just happened to find it at my local second-hand bookshop; second, the Wellington Hospital setting; third, a borrowed dog who is forgotten by the main character (in this case the poor dog dies horribly – I found that really hard to read); and fourth, a reference toward the end to The Shining (which I had just finished reading and put in this journal). Weird, huh? Or maybe I was just going mad at this point trying to finish my novel. But thank you Carl Shuker for making me feel that I had a guardian angel helping me get across the line! I had seriously been wondering whether it was too terrible to have my main character tie a (borrowed) dog up outside Wellington Hospital and then forget about it, and here Shuker does the same kind of thing only much, much worse!
(When the character initially forgets the dog it is done so casually that I thought it was a terrible oversight on the part of the author and publisher – I was so relieved when I realised it was part of the plot.)
I loved the main character’s doomed trip to Auckland and the very awkward social encounter we see her get into. I began to wonder if, in Shuker’s mind, Taylor is on the spectrum. This might account for the slightly strange rhythm of the prose and the unflinching, uncompromising nature of the text – or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Certainly Taylor is a highly intelligent, socially awkward, somewhat unpopular character, who doesn’t seem to care who she pisses off.
I would love to hear Shuker talk about the book, partly to hear his reasons for deciding to weave the story of the Challenger disaster through the text – I looked it up online to see if someone could enlighten me, but the Stuff reviewer only said that the inclusion of the Challenger thread was a ‘major concern’. I don’t know if I agree. I certainly don’t think the Challenger thread was necessary to the book, but I don’t think it took anything away from the novel either – the breaks it offered came as something of a relief from the intensity of the Taylor character. The Challenger story itself is fascinating and deadly and hinges on a mistake – is that why he included it? But there are lots of disastrous mistakes in history, so why choose this one?
All in all though, I loved this book and have already started looking for more of Shuker’s books to read in future.