Book a Day

Book review by John Allemang, Globe & Mail
January 24, 2006

L ike you, I turn to Canadian fiction tion for all my medical needs. And so it was with disappointment that I read the disclaimer for the 10-page mini-lexicon that completes Vincent Lam's heartfelt short stories about young Toronto doctors. "This glossary is not intended to explain medical conditions in any therapeutic way, and does not replace an explanation of any of these terms by a medical professional if they are relevant to your personal health." So much for the miraculous cures promised by the title. All those references to cricoid pressure and collateral circulation, of Krebs cycles and focal deficits, are just the sweet music of fictional narrative and not the stuff of a do-it-yourself trauma handbook. Who would have guessed? But if the human condition isn't treatable by fiction, at least according to Doubleday's straight-faced legal advisers, it can still be anatomized with the calm intelligence and weary worldliness Dr. Lam brings to the case.

Lam is a Toronto ER physician with the quick insights typical of his trade and the more subtle, dark humours that come from having to do your best when other people are often at their worst. The inward-looking world of fiction, too often a creative-writing class not quite brought to life, needs this kind of practitioner and not just for the energizing vocabulary he brings to the language of the heart: atrial electricity, crash cart, rhythm strip, mitral regurgitation. Lam has new stories to tell, and while TV series such as House and ER have prepared the way for the medical slice-of-life, the focus here is much more on the relentlessly analytical doctors themselves-how they plot their way into med school, second-guess the structure and pacing of their death pronouncements, take revenge on callous cops who queue-jump in the ER, negotiate the on-ramps badly after an all-nighter in the trauma ward and generally face up to the burden of having to pretend they know more than they do.

This is Lam's first book, but apart from a too-deferential tribute to Margaret Atwood in the acknowledgments and a certain awkwardness in bringing each tale to a close - artistic symmetries and rhetorical crescendos being inconsistent, perhaps, with a scientific world view - Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures radiates the confidence you expect from a man whose other job is to make stalled hearts start. The advantage of fiction? Here, even the medical failures come to life, vividly.

© Globe & Mail 2006