“Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures”

I finally finished Vincent Lam’s Giller Prize winning Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures on the weekend. I actually wasn’t aware until I read the press release that the book was meant to be a collection of short stories, instead of say, a stand-alone novel. This does, to some extent, excuse the fragmented and jarringly disjointed way in which the narrative is told. I realize too though that yes, Lam was attempting to capture and simulate the fleetingness of life and physicians’ roles in their patients lives (e.g. Chen’s night shift in the ER), but reading it, I kept waiting in vain for glue to appear between chapters, and for a greater coherence to the overall story.

One of the strengths of Bloodletting is the multitude of voices, as patients, nurses, and doctors all air their perspective. On the other hand, this led to the running weakness of the book – with the exception of Chen and Fitzgerald, none of the other characters are developed to any extent. This forced the reader to make judgments and assumptions based purely on speech, and I ached to understand the motivations behind their actions. In particular, I was left hanging with Dr. Ming, who remained hard and detached even in marriage.

I found the beginning and end of the book the most enjoyable, and really, the valley of disconnectedness in between is really a shame. That said, “Contact Tracing,” the penultimate chapter, is by far the text’s most powerful segment. It would work really well in a 10-1 English class, as it is ground in the SARS reality that most students would remember, and employs some really effective stylistic elements.

It’s difficult not to admire Lam – a family man and full time emergency doctor – I can’t imagine how he found the time to pen this book. It does shed a light on the medical profession that I haven’t encountered before, and is worth a read for that alone, but I was still hoping for something more.

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