De­but of­fer­ing shows eye for de­tail


The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - LES­LEY McDOW­ELL

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

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