Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Book review: The Heart Specialist, by Claire Holden Rothman

While I was interning at Oneworld, they had a big clear out before their 'Hen' party (a celebration of the UK publication of the immensely successful The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang). I rather took advantage of their offer to 'take whatever I wanted' and carried 14 books home.

The first book I decided to read was Holden Rothman's debut novel, The Heart Specialist...

The Heart Specialist

The novel is set at the turn of the 19th century in Canada. Agnes White, the protagonist, wants to follow in her father's footsteps and become a doctor, but her intelligence is deemed unwomanly and she faces opposition at every stage of her journey. As a character, she is determined and passionate - Agnes is somewhat of an anti-heroine through her ungainliness, plainness and general lack of adherence to social rules of what a woman should be. She is, however, very human, and desperately longs to be reunited with her father - he was accused of horrifically murdering his disabled sister and disappeared when Agnes was very young.

I felt that this novel was about human weakness as much as human strength - from Agnes' blindness to her colleague's affection, to her sister's mental illness, to her mentor's breakdown at the death of his son, The Heart Specialist is an ironic title; Agnes understands the most complicated heart disorders, but can't understand her own!

The novel has been criticised for reading too much like a biography, instead of fiction based on real life - Agnes is inspired by Maude Abbott, one of Canada's first female physicians. Yes, the text isn't littered with lengthy descriptions and emotional solloquies, but this was what made it consistent with Agnes' character - while she is prone to ill-timed fits of tears, she spends more time studying than pondering her confused emotions.

Agnes does become an accomplished doctor, but the absence of her father overshadows her personal and private life. Two mysteries remain unsolved during the novel - including whether her father was innocent of his crime - but as the book closes just after the end of World War One, it seems fitting that the confusion and cutting sense of loss felt in Europe seeps into Agnes' own life.

The Heart Specialist is a reflective account of the complexity of the human heart, both medically and emotionally. It was a gem I'm glad I picked up.

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