Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar

Matters of life and death…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A former surgeon now acts as a general doctor in a small run-down clinic serving a population of rural villagers. His supplies are late when they come at all, his overseer is bullying and corrupt, and his only assistants are a young unqualified woman whom he has taught to act as his pharmacist, and her husband, who does all the handyman tasks around the clinic. Frustrated with the way his life has turned out, the surgeon is in a near perpetual state of disappointment and ill-temper. Then, one night after a long day when he has been giving all the local children their polio vaccinations, he is approached by three very strange patients, each with terrible wounds. They are a husband, wife and young son who were attacked in the street, robbed, stabbed and left to die. Which indeed they did. Now they have been given the chance to return from the afterlife, but before they come alive at dawn the next day, they must have their wounds treated or they will die again…

No, this isn’t some kind of zombie horror story. It’s a beautifully written fable which, while it can be read on one level simply as a unique and interesting story, has layer upon layer of depth, dealing with the big questions of life, death, faith, and the place of medicine in all of these.

None of the characters have names, being known rather as their occupation – the surgeon, the pharmacist, etc. The first hurdle is for the living characters to come to terms with the shock of meeting the dead ones, and to decide whether they should help them. How do they know whether the power that has offered them the chance to live again is on the side of good? The whole question of the unknowableness of God’s plan and of the place of faith in determining how to act underlies every decision the characters are forced to make. The pharmacist is devout, the surgeon is not, but they each have to answer the same questions to find their way through the moral maze that confronts them, and in the end, their humanity is all they have to guide them.

Paralkar is himself a doctor and scientist, so the descriptions of the surgical procedures the surgeon must tackle come over as completely authentic. Although they can be a shade gruesome at times, especially for the squeamish (like me), they’re not done to shock or horrify. Rather, they show the skills we take for granted in our surgeons – the near miracles we expect them to perform, and our readiness to criticise and blame if they fail. The underlying suggestion seems to be that we’re near to a point of refusing to accept death as inevitable, and what does that do to questions of faith?

Vikram Paralkar

All this mulling over profound questions came after I’d finished the book, though. While I was reading, I was too engrossed in wanting to know the outcome to pause for thought. There’s a very human story here too, and excellently told. Will the surgeon be able to save them all? If not, who will live and who die? What about the woman’s unborn child – is it included in the promise of new life? If they live, what will the future hold for them and for the surgeon? How will the surgeon explain their existence to the villagers – or explain their corpses if he fails to fix their wounds? How will the experience change him, whatever the outcome?

The ending beautifully answers all the questions that should be answered and leaves open all the ones that shouldn’t. Paralkar has achieved the perfect balance of giving a satisfying and thought-provoking story without telling the reader what to think, and as a result this is one that each reader will make unique to herself. One of the most original novels I’ve read in years, I’ll be mulling over it for a long time and suspect it’s one that would give even more on a second read. It gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

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31 thoughts on “Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar

  1. This sounds so interesting, FictionFan! Not at all my usual fare, I have to say, but that doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the read. I’m drawn to the setting and context, and I think that’s fascinating that the characters have no names. It sounds a bit like they’re allegorical characters? Hmm…. either way, this one sounds intriguing!

    • Having worked in healthcare for most of my career, it was the medical ethics element that attracted me at first, and he does that excellently. But there’s so much more in it, plus it’s also a great story just as a story. A writer I’ll be keeping an eye on for sure…

    • The cover is fantastic, isn’t it? And it’s so well written – a great human story even without all the added thought-provoking stuff. Hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to read it! 😀

  2. Medical ethics is such a timely topic, and this sounds like a most interesting piece of reading. Thank you for an excellent review. I’ve never read anything by this author, but I imagine his education and experience came in handy for such a story.

    • It was the medical ethics aspect that attracted me in the first place and he does it so well, without preaching. I loved his writing and that he made it such a human story despite the weirdness of the fable aspects… an author to watch! 😀

    • Haha – I’m not convinced I really want to meet the dead coming back either – it makes me think of The Monkey’s Paw… 😱 But these dead people won my sympathy – well worth reading if you get the chance. 😀

  3. This one sounds intriguing. I can’t quite make up my mind if I want to read it or not. But oh, FictionFan…. surely it breaks rule 6? I quote: “None of the characters have names….” 😱🤔😉

  4. OOhhh I’m so glad you liked this one! I think I’d really enjoy it too, but i haven’t seen it around any Canadian parts yet. We may be getting this one in a year or two…

  5. This sounds really fantastic – it covers a lot of my favourite topics in a way that sounds quite original! Also, the cover is gorgeous. I have just bought this on the strength of your review, and I am really looking forward to reading it.

  6. Sometimes when I start reading one of your reviews, I think, yes, good story, but I can let this one go. Then I keep reading, and you win me over (again 🙂) to thinking this is a story I do really want to read, in fact I’ll miss something I value if I don’t. It’s happened again! I’ve added this to my virtual ‘for later’ shelf at the library. Thanks for your well written and enticing review, FF.

    • Oh, good! I do think you’ll appreciate this one – some books are great stories and some are thought-provoking, but it’s a rare joy to find one that manages to be both. This is exactly the kind of book that I’d love to see on the Booker short-list… 😀

  7. Great review. I am impressed you have reviewed this and I am excited about your high score for this book. I noticed this book in Wellcome Gallery bookshop and thought it would be nice to read for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge since the author was born in India. It is very high on my TBR list now.

    • Thank you! It would be perfect for an Asian Reading challenge – not only was he born in India but the book is set there, although the setting isn’t maybe as important as it is in some other stories. I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did – a great, original book.

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