Debut offering shows eye for detail
MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER
Robin Ol i v e i r a’ s own experience as a nurse has given this historical debut an added authenticity: Mary Sutter is a midwife at the beginning of the American Civil War, but what she really wants to be is a surgeon. No medical college will admit women: the best she can hope for is that a surgeon will take her on as an assistant of some kind and allow her to learn the secrets of the profession.
Historical f iction needs to have a point beyond simply evoking a past era with accuracy, however, and it helps if it t eaches us s omething. We know t hat women couldn’t become surgeons in the mid19th century; we know that war t i me conditions were appalling and that men were more likely to die of disease than they were to be killed on the battlefield.
Oliveira does show us what kind of character traits were required to become the f irst f emale surgeon: dedication, p e rs i st e n c e , intelligence, emotional stability and so on, but these are facets we can well imagine would be necessary.
The “teaching ” part of Oliveira’s debut lies, as so often in the work of historical novelists, in the details: how to sever a l eg above the knee without the muscles snapping back; that muslin sewn for the war effort will be unbleached or a practising doctor’s blade would have a t ortoiseshell handle. Oliveira excels at such minutiae, the result of pains- taking research. But she also renders Mary Sutter real, by cleverly making her crossed in love, with feelings for the first young man who didn’t patronise her, but who went on to marry her prettier twin sister. Emotional d i s a ppointment makes Mary more than simply a carrier of her story.
There are some problems with the narrative: too often t he st or y is car r i ed on in dialogue and t he rumps of description surrounding conversation are self-evident and repetitive. Oliveira tends to over-explain her characters’ motivations as she goes along, leaving little room for wonder or doubt, which is a shame.
Hopefully with her next book she will place more trust in her own powers and not spend quite so much time worrying whether the reader has understood her intentions.
In the era of the American Civil War, only men were surgeons