Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Vincent Lam

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures won the prestigious Giller Prize (for Canadian fiction) in 2006, which means I was at least acquainted with the title of this book. And tha’ts about all I knew about it. I got really excited when I realized it’s twelve stand-alone but interconnected short stories. I don’t often search out books of short stories, usually because when I do…they’re weird. And not the good kind of weird! So here’s the beauty of having no expectations – three stories into this collection, I was hooked.

Bloodletting follows four doctors (Ming, Fitzgerald, Chen, and Sri) from medical school prep, to acceptance, all the way to residency. Each story builds on the last while presenting new facts and a medical case (or several). That Lam writes about the wonderful world of medicine seems appropriate. It’s not just that the author was an ER doctor himself, and is writing what he knows. Some stories were better than others, but overall Lam’s writing is measured, careful, self-assured, oddly creative and at times, risky. This is a doctor writing about doctors, and it works.

My Standouts:

  • Winston, about a man slipping into psychosis, and Dr. Sri’s response. It raises the question of “how involved is too involved?” On one hand, Sri’s knocking at doors and playing detective goes above and beyond what’s called for or appropriate. On the other hand, you can see where everyone could have benefited more if only he’d fully crossed that line. Implicitly, I think it points to gaps in how our medical system is designed to address mental illness.
  • An Insistent Tide. Heavy on the imagery, this one follows a woman in labour. As a female reader (albeit not one who’s given birth), it struck me in a very violent and emotional way. Indeed, the birth process in this story is very violent and painful. My feminist half wants to point fingers at Lam, the male author, and demand why he insists on laying out every detail of a particularly traumatic event. At first I considered whether it was evidence of some sort of literary male violence against women. I’ve since concluded that it is not. Shock value aside, each and every one of the cases in this book is presented in the starkest of ways – it is, ultimately, what breaths believability into them.

“Bloodletting” was also a short-lived HBO mini-series.

In-keeping with its believability, Lam chose to go full-throttle and use actual medical terms. There’s a glossary at the back of the book, to help the reader if need be. In my opinion, it was helpful but not necessary to the understanding of each story. Like Grey’s Anatomy (sorry, but the comparison begs to be made!) the real drama is happening behind the scenes and not within the medicine itself.

In case sappy TV dramas haven’t already taught us, doctors are only human. Bloodletting portrays them as flawed, unheroic, weak. It’s hard to make a snap judgement about any of the characters, because no one is out-rightly presented as “good” or “bad”. Varied situations portray the same characters in vastly different lights. I’d say that’s what makes this book memorable. I recommend it to anyone who’s up for the challenge.

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