Book review: The Night Interns by Austin Duffy

the night interns austin duffy

In The Night Interns, an unnamed intern in an unnamed Irish city goes through a year of night shifts with his two colleagues, Lynda and Stuart.

The disorienting effect of sleep disturbance and overwork gives their lives an intense, hypnotic quality, characterised by both petty irritation and a peculiar intimacy. When they see each other by day, they barely acknowledge each other, as if their night-time liaison is something secret and apart.

On the one hand they are part of a large organisation, constantly churning around them, on the other the three of them form an island, aloof from all others, making their own rules and rituals, from their nightly takeaways to their bickering collaboration.

The narrator defines himself less on his own terms than in his relationship to his fellow interns. He sees Lynda as clever, confident and driven, never making a mistake, while Stuart is weak, passive and lacking in confidence. But as the story develops, these assumptions are thrown into question, and by inference, so is the narrator’s perception of himself.

The lack of chapters suggests the sense for the characters that this is one endless ordeal, with no structure or arc. In TV medical dramas, there’s the shift from exhaustion and relentless drudgery to that moment of adrenalin when everything changes, a life is saved, a complex procedure successfully undertaken, an obscure diagnosis plucked from years of numbing study. For our narrator, there is no such relief. There is only the relentless, continual going on, a feeling that he is forever out of his depth.

Duffy captures the petty absurdities and cruelties of institutional life – something that I’ve noticed particularly in residential settings, perhaps because there is never a break to reset the culture. They are called unnecessarily, at inconvenient times. Each ward has its own system of organising its store cupboards. Whenever the interns are called to a new ward to deal with an incident, they have to struggle to find what they need. Nursing and support staff look on with amusement and refuse to step in, even though lives are potentially at stake.

They are perhaps taking revenge for other slights, from other doctors. The hospital runs on a hierarchy of contempt – there’s a poignant portrait of an immigrant registrar who is bullied by his consultant, but sympathy is undermined when he goes on to take it out on his interns. There are also references to darker events taking place off stage, events which might concern the narrator, if only he wasn’t so tired.

Of course, doctors need to be both clever and have fantastic stamina, to take decisions under pressure, to carry on even when they feel like curling up in a ball and sleeping. But is this hazing really the best way? Does it build character or does the pointless pettiness just brutalise them so they’ll go on and do the same when it’s their turn? 

I loved the terse, downbeat prose of The Night Interns, the moments of bleak humour that highlight the absurdity of the system. Although the subject matter is different, the writing reminded me of Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor.

What’s so brilliant is that from small events, Duffy does craft a compelling story with a sense, by the end, that the narrator has irrevocably changed. A short, intense and immersive read.

I received a copy of The Night Interns from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Night Interns on Goodreads

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