Monday, January 17, 2011
Do No Harm
The term psychological thriller has been bandied about often enough to be pretty much meaningless by now but this book actually does stand up to the description.
Author Carol Topolski is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist so she knows how to properly twist the minds of her characters.
In Do No Harm she’s created the strikingly believable and creepy Dr Virginia Denham, a brilliant obstetrician, solid and respectable, who appears to live a blameless life of hard work and total dedication to her patients. No one knows about Virginia’s loveless childhood or the destructive imaginary friend Ruby who has followed her into adulthood. No one sees the weird eating disorder that has her in its grip. And most importantly not a soul guesses that the upright surgeon has a bizarre fascination with knives or can begin to understand the way she lives behind her own front door.
Topolski chills the reader slowly as she reveals Virginia’s weirdness. She shows how circumstance and other people’s bad choices have herded her towards disaster. There are chances of salvation along the way – like new mum Gilda who senses Virginia’s sado-masochistic urges and tries to channel it in a safer direction. And there are people who might have offered the lonely, isolated woman help and friendship. But Virginia is hardwired to reject them. And when she discovers the secret daughter who is loved unreservedly by her mother, there is no hope of her mind not breaking entirely.
This isn’t your classic fast, one-note thriller. Topolski is fascinated by the inner workings of her characters, and the plot detours too much and too often for the pace to really crack along. We venture back to the war years of Virginia’s father for instance to see what makes him tick, witness her mother’s coldness and her love affair with the family doctor, see the impact it had on Virginia as a child. Topolski is interested in exploring the details of how a monster is created rather than keeping her readers skidding though the pages.
Do No Harm is about the line between good and evil, how easily it is crossed, and how the potential for both exists within us all. The story of a good doctor going bad is possibly more psychological than it is thriller - the characters are complex, the structure a bit scattered at times - but still it’s haunting and compelling. Above all it all seems frighteningly plausible.
Nicky Pellegrino, a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction, (The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009 while her latest, Recipe for Life was published by Orion in April, 2010), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece was first published on 16 January, 2011, as was the piece below.
New Zealand-born Dr Stephanie Dowrick has been writing for many years. Her books include Forgiveness & Other Acts of Love, Choosing Happiness, In the Company of Rilke, and her most recent book, Seeking the Sacred.
The book I love most is…
That’s extremely difficult to nominate as I read so much for work and pleasure. The Essential Mystics, edited by Andrew Harvey, is one of the books I return to often. I also love and use various editions of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Spending years writing about him has made me more, not less interested. Then there are the scriptures of the world's religions. At their best they are poetic and even startling in the freshness of their wisdom or beauty.
The book I’m reading right now is….
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. He is an academic medical doctor as well as a writer. Medicine, and particularly surgery, feature prominently. But what makes the novel entrancing is his knowledge of Ethiopia where much of the novel is set. There are slightly gothic elements, but I'm utterly persuaded to care about his complex, ever-evolving characters.
The book I’d like to read next is…
Because it’s holiday time I plan to re-read several fine novels: Home by Marilynne Robinson, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Thomas Keneally’s novel set in Eritrea, To Asmara. It’s years also since I read one of my favourite New Zealand novels, Maurice Gee’s Plumb. I know exactly where to find it!
The book that changed me is…
Writing Intimacy & Solitude changed me from being a publisher to being a writer. It took six years to complete and set me on a path that seems likely to continue as long as I have health, energy and curiosity! I also learned much from Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle Peace Is Every Step, particularly about the crucial difference it makes to notice and take charge of all the so-called “small” moments that make up a life and create who we are becoming.
The book I wish I’d never read is…
Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I finished it on holiday in Vanuatu and threw it in the bin. It’s widely admired but I found it bleak and ugly in its pessimism, made worse because he is a talented writer. I know how possible it is to write about extreme injustice and suffering without giving up on humanity. The other writers I have quoted show that.