The NHS at 70: 9 books with medical themes

There is a great deal of debate and attention on the UK National Health Service at the moment as it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. If you live in Britain, you can’t move for television, radio and newspaper commentaries at the moment. But the talk is not just about celebration, but about what we want and expect public services to provide in the way of healthcare, and, just as important, how the immense costs of it all should be met. The challenges are mind-boggling: we have an ageing population, advanced medicines come at a high price, the long-term nature of public health investment, not to mention dealing with developed world problems such as obesity, addiction and mental illness. The issues are massive.

The NHS was described by politician Nigel Lawson as “the closest thing the English people have to a religion” and it is indeed dear to the hearts of many. Observe the profile it enjoyed at the opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics and the influence the promise of extra cash for the NHS most likely had on the Brexit debate.

I have no intention of starting a political debate here, but if health is on your mind, you might want to dip into some books with a medical theme. Here are some of my suggestions (not all of which I have read, I should add):

  1. Still Alice by Lisa Genova – a moving account of a 50 year-old woman’s development of early onset Alzheimers. Made into a film starring Julianne Moore.
  2. Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon – a YA book about a young woman suffering from a rare condition which means her immune system is dangerously impaired.
  3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby – a harrowing true story where the author developed locked-in syndrome after a car accident. He was initially thought to be in a coma, but was in fact fully conscious. He was eventually able to communicate through blinking, and wrote this book using only this tool. Incredible and reminds you of the fragility of life.
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – another YA novel, both my daughters love this book, about teenage terminal illness. Also made into a tear-jerker of a film.
  5. This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay – award-winning non-fiction writing from a junior doctor telling it like it is on the NHS front-line.
  6. Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth – love the TV show, currently reading the follow-up Farewell to the East End, Worth was a young midwife in East London in the 1950s so for a taste of the early days of the NHS look no further.
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a young Scottish woman’s mental illness, compounded by loneliness, detachment and the harshness of modern life.
  8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – challenging life events, seen through the eyes of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. A must-read.
  9. Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill – I have recommended this book so many times. It’s an intense novel about eating disorders, mental health and sexuality.

 

If you have suggestions for any other books with a medical theme that you have enjoyed, I would love to hear them.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Lowry

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I was lucky to get a ticket for this performance at The Lowry in Salford last week. The play  has been a huge success for the National Theatre company in London and is currently on tour. You will  no doubt have heard of the book by Mark Haddon, which was published in 2003, and was a Costa Book of the Year and winner of the Guardian’s children’s fiction prize. Ostensibly written for a YA readership, it’s nonetheless a powerful read for adults.

The central character, Christopher Boone, has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means he operates at a very logical, ordered and predictable level. He struggles to make sense of emotion, finds social relationships very challenging and interprets his world in a very literal way. At the start of the story Christopher lives with his father and we are told that his mother has died of a heart attack. The dog of the title belongs to Christopher’s neighbour, Mrs Shears, and when the dog is found dead one morning, stabbed with a garden fork, he sets out to uncover the identity of the dog’s killer. His research does not generate the hoped-for answers but instead raises more questions for both Christopher and the audience. It also causes tension between Christopher and his father, who plainly wants him to cease his investigation. Christopher is completely incapable of interpreting the possible causes of his father’s stress and backing off from the task of finding the dog’s killer, but we as the audience, begin to see that there is more to this incident than meets the eye, and that people (Christopher’s father, the neighbours) are hiding something.

Eventually, Christopher searches his father’s bedroom and finds a stack of letters addressed to him from his mother, who is not in fact dead, but alive and living in London. Feeling that he can no longer trust his father he decides his only option is to go and find her and to live with her in London. What both the book and the stage play do so brilliantly is to convey the sense that logic and intelligence alone are not sufficient to navigate your way in the world. Christopher is a brilliant mathematician (he is doing his Mathematics ‘A’ level at his specialist school at 16) but getting from Swindon to London on a train, and then using the Underground to travel to north-west London, is a near-impossible task. For someone with Christopher’s condition, the noise, the crowds, the proximity of people to one another, are overwhelming. The stage direction is brilliant at conveying the sensory overload and also the extent to which the day to day humdrum interactions that most of us take for granted are utterly baffling to someone whose brain works at an entirely logical level; figurative language is hard for him to comprehend, and some of the most basic instructions and conventions cause him enormous confusion and therefore distress.

I had forgotten elements of the plot when I went to see the play, which was nice because it kept a bit of the dramatic tension for me. It would still have been highly enjoyable even if I had recalled the ending, however. The staging is superb, demonstrating cleverly how Christopher can only function in an ordered, boundaried environment where there is certainty and dependability. The dialogue and acting were also tremendous, with elements of humour, and there is great empathy for Christopher. His condition is dealt with not just sensitively, but triumphantly – it is the ‘normal’ adults around him whose shortcomings are exposed.

I went alone, but really wished I’d taken my 16 year-old son (who has read the book) and/or my 12 year-old daughter, both of whom would have enjoyed it. I think younger teenagers will be able to identify more readily than adults with the confusion of modern life, the challenges inherent in just getting from A to B when you have no experience of it, and the incomprehensibility of the codes that adults use to communicate with one another when they are afraid to use more direct language. The recommended age is 11+.

The run at the Lowry was short, just a week, but the production remains at the Gielgud Theatre in London and is on a UK tour until the end of September. Catch it if you can, it’s fantastic.