Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

21/08/08, Time Magazine Asia

It is extremely rare for a superior collection of short stories not to have at least one, very often more, story that does not meet the exacting standards of the majority, that doesn’t quite work, that is, in short, a dud. Of the entire armoury of qualities that distinguishes Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, the first book of short stories by Toronto-based doctor, Vincent Lam, the most immediately conspicuous is that each and every single story in this book is a flickering, luminous gem.

Underpinned by Lam’s firsthand experience of the world of medicine, the dozen stories in this book are interrelated, lightly and untrickily, by the recurrence of four common characters, Fitzgerald, Chen, Ming, and Sri, all doctors. Between them the stories seem to encapsulate almost the complete spectrum of the medical world: from preparing for medical school exams to gritty night-shifts as emergency doctor, from the experience of being a flight evacuation physician to treating an unforeseen, potentially fatal complication during child-delivery, from shenanigans with the police in Casualty to the terrifying first days of the outbreak of SARS.

‘How to Get into Medical School, Part I’ is an achingly sweet love story featuring Fitzgerald and Ming, both preparing for entrance to Toronto Medical School. The second installment of this story, admirably and shrewdly separated from the first by another story, tells the melancholy end of the relationship, with Ming now seeing someone else – Chen, another fellow-student, someone, we find out later in the collection, she will marry – and Fitzgerald left behind in Ottawa to retake his exams. In the finest story in the book, ‘Night Flight’, we see Fitzgerald, now a flight evacuation doctor with an incipient drinking problem, fly out to Guatemala to rescue a young man who has had a stroke and his wife. Tense, tightly sprung, and impeccably paced, the story’s devastating ending is followed by a coda of such searing yet sympathetic honesty that you are left feeling winded by its flawed humanity. ‘A Long Migration’, the least clinically-themed story in the book, is Chen’s delicate, mosaiced account of trying to piece together the story of his grandfather’s life, a story of several marriages and migration and diaspora. In ‘Contact Tracing’, another piece that ratchets up the tension, Fitzgerald is dying of SARS, having contracted it while evacuating a patient from Shenzhen. In the respiratory isolation room next to his is Chen, also infected because he treated Fitzgerald in the initial stages. The ending rewrites any kind of expectation that we may have held in our minds from these two men having once been potential rivals in love and gives a depthless generosity to the story. It is also marked by a wry sense of humour: the doctor treating Fitzgerald doesn’t know that his tremors are the withdrawal symptoms of an alcoholic so he charts them as an atypical symptom of the new disease.

Who hasn’t felt that great ceding of control when she has gone to see a doctor, that enormous, blind leap into faith, confidence and hope? Here’s a ringside view of the other side that deals with that leap, the side we never get to see. And yet, Lam manages to ease in so much more: an entire atlas of suffering, survival, and failure, a clear-eyed and rigorously balanced testament to the achievements and limitations of modern medicine. Emotionally complex and layered, with a preternaturally sure-footed negotiation of the quicksands of the human mind and heart, this insanely gripping book is also illuminated by shafts of radiant, beautiful prose. Like all great fiction, it is both the absolute truth and a vehicle for taking us to a place we’ve never been before. Read him.