SWALLOW by Mary Cappello


Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them
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Cappello (English and Creative Writing/Univ. of Rhode Island; Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, 2009, etc.) meditates on swallowing and an important American doctor.

In the early 20th century, Dr. Chevalier Jackson pioneered a life-saving method of removing foreign bodies—safety pins, buttons, toy opera glasses, etc.—from the respiratory or upper gastrointestinal tracts. His collection of rescued foreign bodies inspired the author to write this book, in part a biography about him, his patients and the special aura imbued in an object that’s been lodged inside of a person. She writes in literary, often beautiful prose and organizes the narrative around episodes from Jackson’s life and notable patient cases represented by specific foreign bodies. These provide jumping-off points for musings on race, class, sword swallowing and many other topics. These digressions are often only tenuously relevant and give rise to numerous seemingly profound statements that ultimately lack meaning—e.g., “To swallow hardware is to swallow the entrails of machinery.” Even when pertinent, Cappello’s asides are less interesting than Jackson, his patients and the foreign bodies. Frequent recourse to psychoanalytic and Freudian interpretation—for instance, calling the larynxes that Jackson painted “vaginas”—fails to illuminate and in fact distracts from the main narrative. These faults obscure the interesting story that lies tantalizingly behind them, which is a shame, since Jackson is a significant figure in the history of medicine and deserves to be better known.

An interesting, important subject drowned by digression and unconvincing interpretation.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59558-395-6
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: The New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2010


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