One of six finalists for the ManBooker 2003, originally scheduled to appear here in March 2004, but pushed forward: a highly accomplished but unmemorable post-apartheid story in which a young doctor’s best intentions end badly.
Set in a poor and remote part of South Africa that was formerly one of the notorious “homelands,” the tale is narrated by Frank Eloff, a doctor at a small and underused hospital. Frank is like the protagonists of so many stories about anomie and alienation, and the similarity makes the novel, despite its setting, more an intellectual cliché than an original. The hospital is headed by Dr. Ruth Ngema, who, having been promised a better posting, doesn’t want to jeopardize her chances by forcing improvements. Which means that there’s no response when thieves steal plumbing fixtures, and beds and buildings deteriorate. Frank, there because his wife ran off with his best friend and medical partner, takes a masochistic pleasure in living in this remote hellhole, where even the nearest town is dying. He also has a black mistress, Maria, who runs a dilapidated craft stall on the main road and is curiously reticent about the husband she claims to have. Accustomed to the tedium, Frank isn’t happy when he learns he’ll be sharing his room with newcomer Laurence Waters, a young doctor come to perform a year of community service. Laurence, an idealist bent on doing well, soon convinces Dr. Ngema, but not Frank, whose own ideals were lost while serving in the apartheid army, to set up clinics in the villages. The clinics are a huge success, but good intentions can’t compete with the realities of crime and corruption as the army arrives and sets up camp in the town. The soldiers are ostensibly there to track drug dealers, check corruption, and patrol the border for illegal crossings, but their activities seem increasingly more malevolent. A hospital worker is mysteriously wounded and nearly dies, and, on a night when Laurence is on duty, both he and his patient are abducted. Frank, too, soon finds his life dramatically changing.
Carefully, admirably crafted but, overall, unaffecting.