Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

Reviewed by Sophie Harrison Times
March 23, 2008

eal hospitals fail to resemble their fictional counterparts in a number of disappointing ways. Perhaps the greatest letdown is that the dead, on the whole, stay dead; they don't often respond to doctors yelling “Clear!” and pounding up and down on their chests. Vincent Lam makes a cool short story from this culturally unpopular fact, and in doing so contradicts his book's own title. In Lam's stories - as in life - there are very few miraculous cures. What is wondrous is that the author, an accident and emergency doctor in Toronto, has found new tales to tell about medicine. Just as the genre seems near saturation, something as fresh and sparkling as this collection comes along and makes other subjects seem dull again.

This book is almost a novel: 12 short stories linked by four recurring characters. The most well-realised of these characters are Ming and Fitzgerald, two medical students who reappear later on in the book as qualified doctors. We first encounter Ming, the Canadian daughter of Chinese parents, as she is burrowing her way into medical school. Ming has a terrifying level of determination, and an unhealthy faith in the power of fluorescent highlighter pens. Soon after she is safely enrolled at a school in Toronto, she ditches her study companion and lover, Fitzgerald, as his phone calls are disrupting her homework. “Don't you see? I have to be as committed to renal anatomy as I am to us,” she explains, so demonstrating another sad fact of hospital life: real doctors are nothing like as cool as doctors on television. Ming motors through the body that the students are given for dissection, eventually mislaying part of its head in her haste to get to the finish. It is quite worrying when she reappears, later on in the book, as an obstetrician.

But doctors are not really the stars of Lam's debut fiction: the star is narrative itself. Almost every story here has the compulsive what-next charge of true drama, beautifully carried by Lam's clear, understated, confident prose. His calm style almost obscures the fact that his stories deal with only the most exciting medical scenarios. Obstetric emergencies, psychosis and resuscitation (or birth, madness and death) are themes that certainly testify to an author with a background in A&E, rather than an ophthalmologist, say. The best piece in the collection follows Fitzgerald, now a qualified doctor - if a morose and slightly alcoholic one - as he is flown into rural Guatemala on an insurance flight to evacuate a middle-aged European who hassuffered a terrible stroke. The plane lands, and Fitzgerald and a nurse bump over rickety ground to the hospital, where the man's wife is waiting for him to be saved. The man is dying, and his wife has mortgaged their house to pay for what she hopes will be a rescue.

The weird, contextless, cramped mechanics of the trip are brilliantly drawn, as is the estrangement of being intensely involved in someone else's disaster without being emotionally involved in the person himself. It feels absolutely true - and possibly is, as Lam has flown on such trips himself. (It also feels like Graham Greene, in the most desirable way.) Lam certainly worked as a doctor during the Sars epidemic, the subject of another story here: he inflicts the disease on two of his doctors and shows us the touching muddle they create out of their sickness and isolation. It is hard to make such subjects anything but compelling. But easy to make them untrue, which is something Lam, quite miraculously, never does.

© Times 2008