During lockdown, I’ve had the opportunity to read some of those books that have been sitting on my shelf/ Amazon wish list for longer than I would like to admit!
In this post, I’ll briefly share my thoughts on a few of these books and what I have learnt from them in the context of COVID-19. The books reviewed are as follows:
- ‘The Prison Doctor‘ by Dr Amanda Brown
- ‘Life in Crisis: the Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders‘ by Peter Redfield
- ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine‘ by Gail Honeyman
* No spoilers ahead! *
‘The Prison Doctor‘ by Dr Amanda Brown:
‘The Prison Doctor’ is the memoir of a former NHS GP. Dr Brown takes a drastic career change after reaching the limits of her frustration with the bureaucracy and increasingly target based practices of general practice. The book recounts her journey starting out in prison healthcare at a youth detention centre, to working in the infamous Wormwood Scrubs, and finally Europe’s largest closed women’s prison, HMP Bronzefield.
As the title suggests, this book is very much about Dr Brown and not the prisons or people she works with. In some ways, her voice helps to highlight pertinent issues, including how prisons could do more to help people deal with previous traumas, neglect, domestic violence, sexual abuse and the resultant negative coping strategies. However, in many incidents, these traumas are fetishized in an attempt to shock.
The complex stories of the prisoners she meets are distilled into superficial snippets that look great in the back cover blurb… but her retelling somewhat misses a great opportunity to contextualise real problems with UK prisons and the social care system. From such a unique and privileged vantage point, I feel that she could have spoken at greater length about the difficulties she witnessed and offered more of her perspective on what could be done better.
I did find her reflections on the emotional toll of working in such demanding environments interesting and honest, especially as a female working in male-dominated environments. Although, for me the whole book suffers from nauseating undertones of egotism and white knight syndrome, with the focus lying too much on her benevolence and ‘heroism’ rather than the important issues that emerge from her experiences.
In the Context of COVID-19:
I think that the book does teach us something about the impact of social isolation upon our mental health. Brown’s encounters with prisoners suffering from mental health difficulties do emphasise how isolation presents a significant psychological challenge. With the world on lockdown, it seems now more than ever it is important to be aware of and find ways to look after our mental wellbeing.
‘Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders’ by Peter Redfield
This book represents an anthropologist’s criticism of Medicins Sans Frontieres as a humanitarian organisation. For many people, MSF represents a well-defined heroic ideal. Using a decade’s worth of interviews and analysis of in-house documents, Redfield unpacks some of the troublesome compromises necessary when putting the seemingly simple mission of saving lives into practice.
Initially, I read ‘Life in Crisis’ as part of a module on the anthropology of violence, but in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic it was interesting to revisit. This book deserves a whole post in itself, but briefly here are my thoughts…
The central strand running through the entire book is the continuous tension between remaining ‘apolitical’ to maintain access for humanitarian work, and ‘using aid as an alibi for inaction’ (MSF, 2014). Redfield raises the Rwandan genocide to demonstrate how this identity crisis can have disastrous effects; the fine line between preserving neutrality and becoming politically complicit was blindly misjudged.
Redfield on MSF: “a set of conjoined twins, sharing a body but pulling in different directions”– Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Without Borders
I think that this ethnography of MSF provides a useful point of departure for analysing the translation of humanitarian institutions’ clear-cut moral objectives into messy real-world environments. On an individual level, it raises some challenging ideas about how our everyday actions are not black and white, but a politicised and dynamic shade of grey.
In the Context of COVID-19:
This inner tension extends to the COVID-19 response. While we must praise key workers for making invaluable contributions during the outbreak, we must also hold political and institutional leaders to account for creating the conditions that allowed this disaster to develop in the first place. We should not be bouncing back. We should be bouncing forward to a new, better normal.
‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman:
Honeyman’s novel is narrated from the perspective of Eleanor Oliphant, a solitary thirty-something social misfit who is ridiculed daily by her office colleagues for her unusual routines, quirky worldview and her scars. As Eleanor befriends a new employee, we learn more about Eleanor’s traumatic past.
I must admit that the cover of this book did put me off, looking like the kind of cheesy romcom you would find in the bargain bin and decide to avoid. But determined not to literally judge a book by its cover, I gave it a chance and was not disappointed.
The protagonist is endearing and at times comical in her eccentricity. Her characteristically scrupulous analysis of social interactions highlights how small acts of kindness can be transformative. Eleanor bursts into tears as a new acquaintance styles her hair, and in her words ‘makes her shiny’.
It is also an interesting perspective on loneliness. “These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way”, says Eleanor. Nowadays we often think of loneliness as affecting only older generations, as the rest of us are busy living our best lives on Instagram. We are constantly told how with technology, we are more connected than ever. This book highlights that loneliness persists, and can affect anyone of any age.
My only small gripe is the sudden plot twist that concludes the book, which does not do justice to Honeyman’s skilful unravelling of Eleanor’s past over the course of many chapters. Although overall, I think the story is an excellent commentary on loneliness in the modern world and would make anyone think twice about the way that they treat others.
In the Context of COVID-19:
My copy of the book includes a thought-provoking Q&A with the author in the final pages. Honeyman cites her inspiration for the book as an article she read about a young woman living in a big city, who did not speak to anyone between leaving the office on a Friday and returning on Monday morning. I think that if anything good has come out of COVID-19, it is that we are making more effort to maintain relationships and check in on friends and family – something that too often fell by the wayside for me pre-pandemic.
“I suppose one of the reasons we’re able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.”– Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Please do let me know if you’ve read any of these books and what your thoughts on them are. In the coming weeks, I plan to do a few more posts like this, especially on texts related to disaster management and humanitarian work.
Thanks for making it to the end, and I hope you’re all staying safe and well!
Next Time: Vulnerability & COVID-19…
An update on my situation:
For the past few weeks, I have just been enjoying some downtime and preparing for the transition to becoming a doctor. I shall be starting a post as an interim foundation doctor in the trauma & orthopaedics department at a district general hospital in Manchester soon, which I’m very excited for!
MSF. (2014, April 4th). Rwanda: MSF’s internal struggle to position itself in the face of genocide. Retrieved from Medecins Sans Frontieres: https://www.msf.org.uk/article/rwanda-msf%E2%80%99s-internal-struggle-position-itself-face-genocide