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It is late-30's London, with WW II looming, and overworked and deeply exhausted young internist Edward Haggard is learning to cut under the tutelage of top surgeon Vincent Cushing and senior pathologist Ratcliff Vaughan. At a party, Haggard receives a silent smile from Vaughan's wife, Fanny, and is at once obsessed by her—as, indeed, she must be with him. Before long they have secret meetings at the Two Eagles pub and many a sexual rendezvous in his digs. McGrath charts the deepening of their adulterous passion in the same fine spirit used by modern masters of obsession, from the Japanese to Nabokov, and while this delights, it also brings on deja vu. As becomes inevitable in the disease of passion, Edward and Fanny's affair forms a boil that fate must lance. Pathologist Ratcliff, smelling of Formalin and human rot when he comes to his wife's bed, plays the mythic emotional icicle until in rage he pushes Edward down a flight of steps, breaking Edward's hip. The hip is bolted together with a metal piece Edward names "Spike," and Spike's pain leads Edward into lasting morphine addiction, costs him his role in surgery, and demotes him to general practice. Then Fanny comes down with nephritis.... Meanwhile, James becomes an angel in Spitfires, and quite literally his dead mothers's embodiment....
An unbearably memorable ending lifts this to classic level while the thin bright nerves of the storyline are padded with magnificent surgical detail, hospital lore, and moods you can rub your finger down.
Posted February 17, 2001
Patrick McGrath was a guest on a radio talk show when I luckily tuned in. He was plain-spoken about his writing style, (gothic), and he seemed intelligent. That's all I knew when I ordered Dr.Haggard's Disease. The book is a journey into pain - both emotional and physical. If you haven't felt grief, then don't bother with this book. You won't understand it. But if you have suffered loss - really suffered - be prepared to feel that gripping chill inside your chest again. If Mr. McGrath had not been such a literate and compelling author I would have put the book down after the first sharp pang. I didn't and was rewarded with an achingly skillful story.
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Posted August 15, 2009
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