The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

Channelling Greene…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Having retreated to a remote country hospital following the messy break-up of his marriage, Doctor Frank Eloff is in a reasonably contented rut. The hospital is in a town that was briefly the capital of a newly set-up homeland in South Africa. But politics move on, and the homeland ceased to exist when apartheid ended, so that now the town is sparsely occupied and the hospital has very few patients and only a tiny staff. But one day a new doctor shows up – young Laurence Waters, who has chosen to do his year’s compulsory post-qualifying service in this remote spot. Idealistic and somewhat naive, Laurence wants to do good, and his presence becomes a catalyst for change. This is a story of disillusionment – of a man and of a country.

In both style and subject matter, the book reminded me very much of Graham Greene. Galgut has that same spare precision with words, that ability to conjure a pervading air of menace and decay, that empathetic insight into the fallibilities of human nature. His main character and narrator, Frank, also has all the attributes of a Greene protagonist – somewhat passive, without the strength of character to be either fully good or fully bad, an observer forced to become an unwilling participant. His marriage ended years ago, but he is treading water, unwilling to finalise the divorce – symbolic of the end of apartheid not yet having produced the hoped-for change. The lives of all the hospital staff are in limbo, each waiting for a change that seems increasingly unlikely – the head of the hospital waiting for promotion back to the city, Frank waiting to fill her shoes when – if – she goes, a married couple from Cuba, one wishing to return, the other wishing to stay, and their marriage slowly disintegrating under the strain.

Along comes Laurence, fresh and full of hope, forcing the others to recognise the lethargy they’ve sunk into. The question seems to be – will Laurence change them or will they destroy his idealistic optimism? The answer never seems in doubt.

There was much I loved about this – the writing, the characterisation of Frank, the creation of an air of uneasy melancholy and later of menace and fear. I was totally involved for well over half of the book. And then, and I can’t quite put my finger on the reason, it fell away and rather lost me towards the end. I felt the plot wasn’t developed well enough – it all seemed contrived to deliver an ending. (Yes, I know all plots are contrived to deliver endings, but the good ones don’t feel as if they are.) The drama all takes place off the page, which does stop it reading like a thriller, which it isn’t, but also somehow stops it from delivering an emotional impact. When the major event finally occurred, I found I didn’t much care. And that made me realise that, although Frank is fully and excellently realised, the other characters hadn’t come to life for me, not even Laurence. In a sense, I think that’s part of the point – Frank is detached from emotional involvement, and therefore so are we. But even when he is finally jarred out of his apathy, his efforts at playing a more active part are half-hearted and soon over. Again, I think this is meant to be symbolic of the failure of the hopes of the new South Africa, but whatever, it left me shrugging a bit.

Damon Galgut

I also developed the impression, rightly or wrongly, that this feeling of utter depression about the state of post-apartheid South Africa was terribly white. Galgut doesn’t romanticise the past in any way – quite the reverse – but he also gives no feeling for the immense hope that surely existed among black South Africans, finally free from the yoke of subjugation. Even when things didn’t improve as dramatically as people hoped, I found the idea of apathetic acceptance unrealistic. I’d have expected continued hope, anger, possibly despair – not apathy. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps in the rural areas things went on much as they always had.

I certainly enjoyed Galgut’s writing and found the book thought-provoking if not entirely convincing. I’ll be looking forward to reading more of his work and, despite my reservations, I do recommend this one – although it tailed off for me at the end, I found it an absorbing and worthwhile read up to that point.

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47 thoughts on “The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

  1. Well done Galgut for making what sounds like a pretty decent job of this book. Perhaps not one for me – you know I like them on the cheery side – but I wish the chap all the best 🙂

    • You’ll have to get used to misery if you’re going to write about Russians – not even vodka does much for their joie de vivre if my old pals Lenin and Trotsky are anything to go by… 😉

  2. I loved Galgut’s writing in this book and found that it stayed with me for a good while, but you’re right, there is a slight feeling of being kept at arms length I think.

    • Thank you, and thanks for introducing me to Galgut! I loved the writing too, and the subject matter. Very Greene-ish all round, I thought, though without any feeling of him ‘copying’ Greene. I’ll certainly be reading more of his stuff.

  3. Ooh…interesting. And, your comments are very intriguing…I’m really curious now especially when you mention “apathy”. Having grown up in South Africa, I don’t think there ever was (or even is now) apathy. Far from it in fact…there were/are so many emotions. Although….hmmm…maybe there was (or is apathy)…the endless promises but nothing that ever happens. The “oh well”…and carry on as normal because there’s nothing else to do. But…let’s leave all the politics for another day 😉

    • Ah, that’s interesting, coming from someone who actually knows the country. The book was written in about 2003, and it just felt too soon for that level of apathy to have set in – I could see it being more possible today after so long. Not that getting the white perspective is a bad thing, but I did feel it left me unconvinced. Still worth reading though! Have you ever read Patrick Flanery’s Absolution? It’s kind of about the whole truth and reconciliation thing, again from a white South African perspective, but somehow he convinced me so much more. A great book!

      • I must admit I haven’t read any South African books as I feel that having experienced daily life in South Africa I want escapism and something that might not hit so close to home or reality. And then the usual „problem“ that these books are largely biased even if they don’t want to be. Maybe I’m being short sighted or ignorant but…
        Oh…I have read „Fiela‘s Child“ which I thoroughly enjoyed.

  4. Sounds like a really evocative look at the place and society, FictionFan. The writing style, especially, interests me. As you say, though, if you don’t really connect with the characters, it’s hard to feel truly drawn into a story. Interesting point you make about the ending, too. That can be tricky – delivering an ending that doesn’t feel contrived – and I know what you mean about an ending that doesn’t feel natural (is that the word?). Still, it sounds like a very good read.

    • The writing style is excellent – I’ll certainly be trying to fit in more of his stuff. I don’t think this was his first book, but it’s an early one, so I’m intrigued to see how he’s developed – if his more recent books don’t feel quite so contrived at the end. This was well worth reading though – modern South Africa has so much potential for storytelling…

  5. Excellent points, FF, in this review. And I like thoughtsallsorts’s comment as well. I have friends in South Africa. They don’t seem apathetic either. (They come up to visit here for several months, then return home.)

    • Thanks, L. Marie! 🙂 Yes, I don’t think it’s been long enough for apathy to have really set in, and as an outsider, it seems to me that though South Africa obviously still has huge problems, it’s still vastly improved for most people from the old days of apartheid…

    • That’s so true – often the more we’ve heard about a book, the more likely it is to be a little disappointing. But despite me feeling the ending fell away a bit, I still thought this was well worth reading, and will be looking out for more of his stuff… 🙂

  6. I think post-anything books written by the losers (even if they worked hard to bring about the change) tend to be on the bleak side. As far as I can make out, there are very few black Africans who would wish to go backwards, even if present-day South Africa has a lot of problems. I also think it takes quite a long time for the realisation that things will not miraculously change in five minutes to set in, and for people to start fighting the small local battles after they have “won” the big one.

    • Yes, I do too – I don’t know Galgut’s view on apartheid, but he certainly didn’t come over as an apologist for it. But nevertheless it must have been difficult for white South Africans to adjust. And I also doubt very much that many people would want to go back, whatever the current problems might be. I must try to read some books by black South Africans to get the ‘other side’ of the story – I think most of the books I’ve read have been by white liberals.

  7. Oh, dear. This one doesn’t sound like something that would keep my attention, and I’m afraid I’d just get angry spending all that time with half a book, only to learn if drifts off midway. I’m glad it was partially enjoyable for you, though, and thankful my TBR is safe for today at least!

    • I do find South Africa fascinating, but I suspect it’s partly because of the old colonial history – it’s another of those countries I feel kind of linked to, like India. Always a shame when a book fades towards the end, but this was still a worthwhile read, and I’ll be intrigued to read more of his stuff someday… 🙂

  8. I read this years ago, I don’t remember it in any great detail but you have reminded me why I liked it overall. Perhaps the reason I don’t remember it too well is because some of it fell flat for me too.

    • In a lot of ways, I felt the atmosphere was more important than the story which might be why the details have faded. And that might also be why it fell away for me at the end – I really like a strong plot. But I’ll be keen to read more of his stuff – I liked his writing style a lot…

    • Hahahaha! Well, you have to admire the reviewer’s honesty, and sometimes I wish I could be that brief! 😉 But I did think it was well worth reading even if it fell away a bit for me at the end…

  9. Definitely an interesting sounding book and one that I may well look out for – once I am freely buying books again – I liked your review and your take on the parallels to apartheid especially about the lack of change culminating in apathy. Like you I can’t quite believe that was/is ever true for the entire population even if segments felt that way.

    • Definitely well worth reading when you get the chance! Yes, I felt the apathy thing was unrealistic – sure, some people might have felt that, but for most it must surely have been an exciting time – maybe frustrating, maybe scary. I’m intrigued to read his later books though – I liked his writing style very much.

  10. Interesting, I was just reminiscing about the time we spent in South Africa right after apartheid fell over on LF’s blog. There was great hope among 90% of the population, the 90% who had pretty much be kept from education, housing, and little things like water and electricity. So this does sound like a very white perspective. I always think back to The Remains of the Day when I think of a detached narrator and how the story peels back like an onion until you’re devastated at the end. And then you wonder just how the writer did that so that you, too, can call forth this bit of magic when needed. Not sure I’d read this book. I think I’d be disappointed.

    • Yes, it was only when I looked back at the end (when it lost me a little and so I began to be critical) that I really realised all the black characters were in minor roles. Of course, the white perspective is just as valid, and I loved Patrick Flanery’s Absolution, which is also very ‘white’, but somehow in this one I felt he was extrapolating out how the white South Africans felt so that it seemed everyone felt that way, and I found that hard to believe…

      I’m always intrigued as to why a story suddenly flounders when it’s been gripping up to a certain point. Of course, if I ever discover the answer, I’ll be able to write a great book… 😉

  11. Too bad he missed the mark on characterization here. I do like reading about major historical events like this, and yes, characters tend to take a back seat in them, but it’s important to keep the reader tethered to something other than just the facts.

    • Yes, it can become almost like reading a history book if it relies too much on facts. With this one, it was as if all his characterisation was centred on the one character and all the rest didn’t really get filled out enough for me to care about them.

    • Yes, she was with another man and hassling Frank for a divorce mainly. The doctor placement was a bit more problematic and I really didn’t think it was properly explained, to be honest…

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