Frank Eloff is a world-weary doctor in a remote South African hospital. His world is upturned when an idealistic young Laurence Waters is posted to work with him. The hospital was opened under apartheid, in what was deemed a homeland (impoverished parts of the country that were set aside by the regime for illusory ‘self-determination’).
Apartheid has gone, but their hospital somehow remains, poorly resourced, its staff all waiting for something to happen, the few serious cases they encounter transferred out. Some staff see salvation in moving on, others wallow in resignation. Laurence is young, idealistic, determined to shake things up. But there are complex social and political forces in play, and his actions have terrible consequences.
The Good Doctor is the perfect short novel. Frank’s voice is so intense that any more would be too much. It takes you into a world that is uniquely its own, a dark, claustrophobic place where nothing is certain or familiar, where you are constantly stumbling for sense, where the emotions are vivid but the facts are contingent.
Galgut’s writing is brilliant: terse, fierce, like being jabbed in the chest relentlessly. It is astonishing but you don’t quite know how it’s done. Like the greatest prose, the magic somehow rests in the space between the words.
The Good Doctor doesn’t preach or explain. While it dissects the cruel absurdities of oppression and corruption, the word apartheid doesn’t appear once. You experience the world anew, without assumptions, preconceptions or easy explanations. You must decipher images, snatches of dialogue, gestures, the arrangement of a room.
This novel has my favourite kind of ending, neither too tightly tied up, nor hanging unresolved. The world at the end has irrevocably changed, but it is for the reader to decide how.