The Physician by Noah Gordon: the art of lifelike surprises

The Physician by Noah Gordon - reviewed by Paul VitolsThe Physician by Noah Gordon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wide-ranging and surprising tale of the 11th century.

This was a book I’d never heard of until it was presented to me by the Goodreads recommendation engine. Attracted by its high ratings and its apparently simple premise—the career of a medieval physician—I downloaded the sample to my Kindle. When I’d finished that, I had to keep reading, so I bought the book.

From the start I felt that I was in good narrative hands. The author’s storytelling style is simple, direct, vivid, and perceptive. It opens with a young boy, Rob J. Cole, shelling peas on the sunstruck stoop of his family’s house in London, being approached by a prostitute bearing a message. From this unusual but real-feeling interchange the story starts on its long and unexpected course: it is the story of Rob J.’s career.

In the case of The Physician, more than with most books, I think that to talk about what happens in the story would be to spoil it for the reader, for the element of surprise is strong in it. Again and again I was reminded of a definition of story that I devised myself a few years ago:

the art of creating lifelike surprises

If my definition is valid, then I would offer up The Physician as a textbook example, for the story of Rob’s life proceeds with twists, turns, barriers, and quick escapes, like the course of a stream in high mountains, finding its way to the sea. It’s driven by an inner necessity, but its way can be surprising as it switches back on itself, falls over bluffs, and is dammed for a time in deep hollows. But, as though with a sense of mission, it keeps going forward.

In brief, Rob J., a carpenter’s son, through a series of early calamities in his life, discovers that he has a passion and a talent for healing. And there are healers in the world around him, from the lowly barber to the higher-status doctor to the pinnacle of the profession, the educated physician; but Rob has no apparent path to that career ladder. So, eventually, he creates his own path. And it is long and filled with wonders.

Along the way are many incidents, and many characters flow past like fish in a coral reef. One of the author’s great strengths is his ability to create vivid, real-seeming characters one after another, entering the protagonist’s world, tarrying for hours, days, or years, and then disappearing again. Like life. Barbers, merchants, carpenters, priests, doctors, farmers, publicans pass through, each a real person with touches of dark and light.

Indeed, I found the narrative to be so lifelike that it actually lacked the standard dramatic structure of an artfully designed story. Even though the book is long, it is simple, in the sense that it does not have much in the way of subplots. The vicissitudes of Rob J.’s life are its full focus. For the most part I didn’t miss the complexity, but this lifelike quality meant that there is not a strong, definite climax to the story. The ending is appropriate and satisfying, but I also felt that the story had simply come to a stop rather than fully resolving all of its issues.

Sometimes I wondered whether the story also felt a bit too modern in places. Even the protagonist’s name, Rob J. Cole, felt modern to me, and the attitudes and speech of the characters seemed modern-ish, considering that these people are living 300 years before the time of Chaucer. This is not a serious issue for me, since every age feels modern at the time when it is happening; and I think that historical fiction-writers should feel free to err on the side of modernity in dealing with their periods, while steering clear of outright anachronisms. In this case it was a niggling thought that recurred to me as I read.

But the author’s knowledge is impressive, and Rob’s passion for medicine is exciting and real-feeling. Historical fiction—maybe all fiction—tends to be about sex, violence, and politics, but here we have a tale of the human hunger for knowledge, and this reader found that refreshing and most welcome. And because it is about life, sex, violence, and politics do make their way in, but in supporting roles.

In sum, I read the whole thing, and I read it with enthusiasm and pleasure—something I can’t say about all the books I pick up. The Physician deserves its high ratings.

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