Oh, why why why did it take me this long to get introduced to Damon Galgut’s sublime novel The Good Doctor ? My own fault, actually. I mooched the book a while back after reading about it in various locations (namely, Bookeywookey), but didn’t bother to read it until last week. Big mistake. I consider this book one of the best reads of the year.

Over the last few years I’ve developed a real interest in South African literature (although I know I’ve really only skimmed the surface at this point). There is something about the subject matter and the writing style of writers like Gordimer, Coetzee, Brink and now Galgut, that consistently impresses me…a thoughtfulness, a heaviness, a careful and reflective creation of story and character.

The Good Doctor is a tightly contained, intimate story with immense reach. It manages to portray an entire landscape of complex socio-political realities while remaining closely focused on a single man’s thoughts. The narrative action follows a short timeline (less than a year) yet it reflects both an era as well as the main character’s entire life.

The book opens with the arrival of a young, new doctor at a rural hospital in one of the former South African homelands. The hospital is barely functional, with only a few staff members and hardly any equipment. The new doctor is appropriately shocked and dismayed and the current staff expects him to simply pack up and leave. But Dr. Laurence Waters is an idealist and instead of leaving, he begins to see what kind of new life he might be able to bring to the run-down hospital, and in connection, to the empty town and neighboring villages.

The book is narrated by Frank, a doctor who has been living in this forsaken community for several years. Frank is a jaded and troubled man, somewhere in his forties, who experiences Laurence’s arrival, first like an amusing event in an otherwise humdrum existence, but later as a threat. Laurence is going to change their lives and Frank isn’t at all certain this is a good idea.

What struck me about The Good Doctor is the way it hummed along with an eerie, restrained violence. Frank is neither stable, nor is he a “good person”, yet it is his voice leading us through this story. I love this kind of fiction. Frank is my guide to this fictional universe, but the more I get to know him, the more I mistrust his view of things.

So what gets set up is essentially a face-off between Frank and Laurence, but not a face-off in any traditional sense…as Laurence moves his improvement projects further along, Frank spirals deeper into a series of self-defeating behaviors. Alongside this contrast of personality, there is a problem of looting at the hospital, increasing violence in the town, as well as a number of small conflicts between the few staff members at the hospital. The novel’s restrained menace eventually blossoms into a real, tangible tragedy.

And here is where the novel really impressed me. This tragedy in and of itself is an answer to the Frank/Laurence (resignation/idealism) face-off, but it also gets to the heart of Frank’s true brokenness, which is founded in more than just personal history and his own specific disappointments, but involves South African history, lingering prejudices and universal human failures.