Review: The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

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My bookshelves are piled high with brand new books, fiction and non-fiction, so much so that I really truly do not need to buy a book again until mid 2020. However, that doesn’t mean I cannot borrow books? Right? Two days after I vowed to read my huge medicine TBR list, I just happened to walk out of my local library with ‘The Way of All Flesh’, the BRAND NEW debut novel by Ambrose Parry, a pseudonym for husband and wife duo Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. To be honest with you, all it took was two phrases, new anaesthesia and 19th century medicine to change my mind.

Edinburgh, 1847. Will Raven starts his apprenticeship with Dr Simpson, a renowned surgeon specialising in midwifery and obstetrics. He soon gets pulled into not only the world of midwifery, but Simpson’s quest to find a reliable and safe form of anaesthesia. However, Raven, along with housemaid Sarah also find themselves investigating the brutal murders of young women in the city. How did they die, who killed them and for what purpose?

Carefully entwined within the gory and unsettling are a plethora of medical themes, all explored with both enthusiasm and historical accuracy. 19th century Edinburgh was one of Britain’s hubs of medical teaching and discovery – its prominence coincided with the emergence of the 19th century medical marketplace, which in effect offered consumers a wide variety of medical options. Therefore throughout the novel, the reader learns of the advantages and disadvantages of quackery, homeopathic and hydropathic medicine and of course, the quest for a safer and painless surgical procedure via anaesthesia. Personally, the amalgamation of all aspects of 19th century medical history in one novel focused on the advancement of medicine, pleased me most whilst reading. As medical historians, we are often taught one epoch in history per week/module – Parry’s work brought all our knowledge together into a tangible demonstration of 19th century medical life.

Saying that, you do not need one jot of medical history knowledge to enjoy this novel. As Will Raven is an apprentice, the reader learns what he learns. The principles and methods of surgery, anaesthesia and midwifery are as new to Will as they are to the reader – Raven explains these principles through his experiences. These experiences can be as simple as a short conversation between Raven and Dr. Simpson, a room full of Drs trialling new forms of anaesthetic, or a live surgical procedure performed theatrically. The reader witnesses these events through the eyes of a new, fresh Dr, ready and willing to learn.

If you want a good book that transports you back to the 19th century, whilst not even leaving your house, The Way of All Flesh is definitely for you. Easy to read, historically accurate and gripping until the very last page – believe me, I devoured the last 50 pages at a rate of knots due to all the twists and turns – Ambrose Parry’s debut novel showcases the best and worst of 19th century medical advancement and practice. Do you think the library will mind if I keep this forever? On loan of course!

 

Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2018, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo chronicles the lives of Yejide and Akin, a married couple struggling to come to terms with infertility and child mortality against the backdrop of a politically charged 1980s Nigeria.

Whilst reading Stay With Me, I was impressed by the historical accuracy of the novel. Yejide and Akin cannot have children. Yet once they have children, via unconventional means, their first two children suffer from Sickle Cell Disease.  Sickle Cell Disease did, throughout Africa in the late twentieth century, affect many children. For example, a study by A. F. Fleming (et.al) of the Garki District in Nigeria during the 1970s, found that of the 534 newborns in the district, 2.1% had Sickle Cell Disease – 92% died.[1] Children aged between 1 and 4, of which 0.4% of 259 were affected, were expected to live no more than 5 years.[2] The death of Yejide’s first two children, Olamide and Sesan, at the hands of Sickle Cell Disease is an accurate representation of the true cost of Sickle Cell Disease in Nigeria. Multiple children from the same family died from the disease in the 1970s and 1980s.  However, Rotimi, Yejide’s third child, survives her Sickle Cell diagnosis and lives. But why? She is, for one, a symbol of hope at the end of the novel, a way for Adebyo to satisfy the reader’s appetite for a happy ending (of sorts). Yet Rotimi’s survival is also a reflection of falling mortality rates as the twentieth century drew to a close. New medical knowledge led to better treatment and condition management options. Rotimi symbolises this.

Ayobami Adebayo’s emphasis on healthcare and the importance of good health in relationships is shown through Akin and Yejide’s use of both orthodox and unorthodox medical practices in order to address their fertility problems. Whilst Akin seeks infertility help from a specialist infertility hospital in Lagos, Yejide takes a more traditional path, opting to visit a man atop a mountain and takes part in his fertility ceremony. Both treatments are unsuccessful, regardless of their orthodox and unorthodox status. These unsuccessful treatments are therefore an interesting insight into the real power of medicine: sometimes no amount of medical help from whichever option an individual chooses can help some conditions. Parallels can be made here with contemporary medical issues, such as IVF treatment and private medical care. Despite the money paid for treatment, successful procedures are not guaranteed.

Perhaps Ayobami Adebayo’s greatest success with this novel is her ability to combine human emotion with medical themes, in order to tell an intense story that doesn’t hide away from real life. Family members, neighbours and acquaintances are all affected by Yejide and Akin’s infertility problems – medicine and health are widely spoken about and debated topics in the community.

Stay With Me is a fantastic novel addressing infertility, medical practices and relationships in 1980s Nigeria. Infertility and Sickle Cell Disease are dealt with delicately, whilst retaining the realities of explosive emotions associated with health problems. Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel marries emotion and medicine together beautifully.

 

 

 

[1] S. D. Grosse (et. al), ‘Sickle Cell Disease in Africa: A Neglected Cause of Early Childhood Mortality’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 41:6, (2011).

[2] Ibid.