Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, but at book club we decided first to read his 2003 shortlisted The Good Doctor.
The story is told by Frank, a middle-aged, listless doctor who "had swallowed a lot of frustration over the years" and works in a hospital where there are few, if any, patients. It's set in a Homeland region of South Africa, described by Galgut in the Author's Note as "impoverished and underdeveloped [...] set aside by the apartheid government for the 'self-determination' of its various black 'nations'".
Also working in the hospital are Dr. Ngema, Frank's female boss, Tohogo, an unqualified male nurse, and a couple of charity medics from Cuba. When an idealistic young intern named Laurence arrives, Dr. Ngema assigns him to share Frank's room. Laurence's "involvement and effort showed up a lack in me", admits Frank, and prompts the older doctor to reflect on his life, through which Galgut exposes the reader to the political situation of post-apartheid South Africa.
Frank is insensitive to and lacks understanding of the historical reality of apartheid for black South Africans, which suffuses the story. He is roundly criticised by Dr. Ngema for his ignorance about the importance of electricity for the blacks, "because you've never lived a day without it in your life". And again, "you have no idea of what it means to be a black person in this country". The gulf between blacks and whites seems impossible to cross, even for those, like Lawrence, who have good intentions.
Readers who prefer a fast pace and intriguing plot may not like the book. Galgut's style has been compared to Graham Greene, and for me this is high praise but for others it will likely be a turn-off. Things do start to happen with the arrival of Laurence's American girlfriend, Zanele. At a drinks party for her Frank is surprised to find himself "weaving and bouncing opposite the most unlikely of partners, Tehogo. [...] His grinning, sweating face seemed mad to me, till I recognized in it a mirror image of my own".
In the end I wondered who exactly the good doctor was. Was it Laurence to whom "It didn't matter how old or young [the patients were], how arbitrary or critical their condition; he was the same with every one of them: serious, concerned, committed. They all seemed to matter to him". Or was it Frank, described by Dr. Ngema as "a very experienced doctor". He proves it by saving a badly injured patient, in spite of admitting that Laurence's caring attitude "bothered me because, really, I didn't care too much".
The Good Doctor polarised opinions within book club, but that's what made it an excellent choice.
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