Review published on November 14, 2017.
We think of medicine as clinical, precise, sparse, so it should come as little surprise that Sam Guglani’s novel, Histories, which offers a glimpse into life in a hospital from those on the front line, as it were, is all of these things. Yet it is so in a brilliantly poetic and advantageous way, wasting not a single word, each sentence seems perfectly constructed to deliver its meaning with all of the exactitude of a clinician but the refinement of a poet. Author Sam Guglani is, after all, both of these things: a consultant clinical oncologist and a writer. And Histories showcases superbly the interface between those two seemingly different identities and different worlds. Medicine, like art, the book shows us is about life, about meaning, about understanding our sense of self and place in the world and in time.
Guglani constructs his novel with short chapters, each featuring a different representative of the hospital world. From physicians to junior doctors, chaplains to cleaners, he takes in the breadth of this rarefied ecosystem as he focuses on snapshots of their lives in turn. Although each chapter reads somewhat independently of the others, there is a loose arc to the whole, set as it is during a single week in the same unnamed hospital, albeit with the narrative jumping back and forth in time, and with characters recurring between chapters and a plot thread weaving them all vaguely together. For me, I loved this structure and the polyphony of the narration. Although I did wish that some of the chapters were a little longer and so too that the book could have been lengthened, purely because I enjoyed what there was of it so much, I longed to read more. And I also would have liked a bit more differentiation and diversity to the voices in the chapters, as aside from a couple that stand out and are quite memorable, several of the characters did merge for me.
Having said this though, this novel is really a captivating piece of literature, not least because of the way it humanises the medical profession and those who are involved in it. Guglani is not afraid to show both the good and the bad, to question the motivations, the priorities and the personalities of his characters. Shining a light on the staff rather than the patients is also an incredibly effective way of underscoring the sense in which people’s lives are in the hands of others. And that whilst medicine is a scientific endeavour it is very much administered by human beings, who are as infallible, as ambitious, as flawed, as hopeful as the rest of us.
Jade Craddock 4/4
Histories by Sam Guglani
riverrun 9781786483805 hbk Nov 2017
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