Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures

Reviewed by Adrian Turpin Financial Times
March 21, 2008

rom the war zone of ER's emergency room to the moral conundrums of Dr Gregory House, television knows how to find metaphorical gold in hospital wards. But no medical drama has ever offered anything quite like the Canadian writer Vincent Lam's first book. A collection of linked short stories following four medical students as they become doctors, Blood-letting and Miraculous Cures is scalpel sharp, as cool and polished as the steel of the mortuary table.

Part of the pleasure of these tales is voyeuristic. Lam is an emergency physician by trade and his writing feels bloodily authentic. What lifts the book out of the realm of the documentary, however, is the precision with which he portrays his medics' emotional lives.

There is nothing spare about these character studies. The icily repressed Ming brings the same unsentimental approach to her love life as she does to her dissection class. Fitz gets through his job by taking nips from his hip flask. Sensitive Sri is tortured by the idea that a psychotic patient may have been poisoned by his neighbour, while for Chen, each night at work is to be dreaded.

In the background are the sick. Occasionally, they are sharply in focus. More often they are compressed to a handful of symptoms.

At this book's heart is a big question: is it ever possible to connect fully with another person? In Lam's hands, the doctor-patient relationship - protective detachment punctuated by moments of fleeting intimacy - becomes a symbol of all human bonds. It's no accident that the only lasting relationship depicted is between Ming and Chen, who work opposing shifts.

"Every disease," says Fitz, "has its rhythm, its dancing sequence of steps and turns that acts as a coded storyteller." The same is true of Lam's tales. They infect the imagination in a way only the best short stories do.

© Financial Times 2008