Tuesday 27 September 2016

Books: Human story suffering from bad case of jargon

Fiction: This Living and Immortal Thing, Austin Duffy, Granta, pbk, 304 pages, €19.50

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

Cancer specialist: Duffy studied medicine at Trinity and works in US.
Cancer specialist: Duffy studied medicine at Trinity and works in US.
This Living and Immortal Thing

'Normal cells die out pretty quickly, whereas cancer cells never do. They are immortal." So states our unnamed narrator in this debut novel by Austin Duffy, who himself studied medicine at Trinity College and is now a medical oncologist in Washington DC, unlike our narrator, who has left Ireland for New York.

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We learn that he - the narrator, not Duffy - is 42 and estranged from his wife Yvonne, a vascular surgeon in St James's Hospital in Dublin. He escaped to America two years ago to disappear into the incredibly intricate folds of cancer research, his most intimate relationships are now with the lab mice he implants with cancer cells, followed by drugs and then watches to see what happens. He even gives them names, like Henrietta, his newest acquisition.

Every night he stands at the window of his hospital accommodation and plays the trumpet. Badly. Marya, the exotic Russian girl he has already admired, has seen him through the glass, but thankfully not heard him. When he finally gets the courage to speak to her, she explains to him that she helps out as a translator for Russian hospital patients.

Indeed, bravery is something that this man is distinctly lacking. And the one time that he must show some support and strength to someone he is meant to care about, he runs away to hide in his lab. And it is hard to empathise with such intrinsic cowardliness, particularly when this man is a doctor and supposedly trained to deal with such situations. To compound his solipsism, he is remarkably uninvolved in the people directly around him, showing complete disinterest in them, including his lab partner Deep, about whom he knows almost nothing other than Deep sleeps a lot.

And there is a growing sense that he didn't really know his wife, either, or hadn't bothered trying to. He demonstrates remarkable insensitivity to other people and only ever considers his own reactions to a situation.

There are snippets of his family life, his retired father is writing a book about Yeats. His angry wife Yvonne and their abandoned frozen embryos. We learn that he has one brother, Donal, 13 years his junior and with Down syndrome. Donal lives in Dublin with their parents and likes to text his brother often, though his brother can be slow to reply. We also meet his Irish colleague Cillian Deasy, who is more successful than him, more ambitious. Cillian also knows Yvonne, which provides a handy overlap when the past looks set to catch up with the present.

These moments demonstrate Duffy can create credible characters and set up plot paths. But Duffy is dangerously close to burying this potentially good story in too much technical jargon, too much talk of centrifuging fluid and clinical parameters. We have probably all been personally touched by cancer, but we are not all fascinated by its research development. And this novel works much better when he is telling the human story, revealing real lives and emotions and not cold medical information.

There is also a unnecessary over-reliance on footnotes, sometimes quite large ones. And these sometimes include anecdotes and personal reflections that would have served the story better if they'd been woven into it, such as when giving bad news the doctor should feel responsible, too, given that they accept all praise when delivering good news.

Mind you, it does have important insider knowledge, including this: "If you are ever being admitted to hospital and the nurse starts leading you in the direction of the single room in the corner, you should dig your heels in and refuse to go. You don't stand a chance otherwise."

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