In Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor, set in post-apartheid South Africa, two doctors, one high on idealism, and the other opting to bury himself in a dead-end job, both end up in the same ramshackle rural hospital. Who is the ‘Good Doctor’ here? Idealistic, young Dr Laurence Waters whose arrival sets off an uneasy chain of events or the narrator, burned-out middle-aged Frank Eloff, who prefers the status quo–even if that means years spent avoiding his estranged wife and the promising career expected of him?
When Laurence Waters arrives he’s clearly shocked by the state of the small rural hospital. and according to Frank, who’s been stuck in a self-imposed stalled career, it isn’t a “real hospital.” The nearest town in an hour away, and that’s where the “real hospital is,” the one where “people go when they’re sick.”
And then you arrived and you saw. Maybe the first clue was a disturbing detail; a crack that ran through an otherwise pristine wall, or a set of broken windows in an office you passed. Or the fact that the fountain was dry and full of old sand at the bottom.
Frank expects Laurence’s initial “bewilderment.” He’s seen it so many times before whenever new doctors arrive.
So the bewilderment that Laurence Waters felt wasn’t unusual. I’d been through it myself. And so I knew that the feeling would pass. In a week or two, the bewilderment would give way to something else: frustration maybe, or resentment, anger. And then that would turn into resignation. And after a couple of months Laurence would be suffering through his sentence here, like the rest of us, or else plotting a way to get out.
But Laurence’s emotional state doesn’t quite form as Frank predicts. Laurence and Frank share a room together, and Frank is at first resentful at the intrusion but then finds that he enjoys the company. Soon, however, Laurence begins a programme to take medical care to the locals, and this shifts the delicate status quo within the hospital and the community. The narrator realises, uncomfortably, that “Laurence’s involvement and effort showed up a lack in me.”
As the novel explores Laurence’s idealistic attempts to alter the hospital and the community, the plot raises several moral questions. Is idealism harmful or even practical? How much moral compromise is acceptable?
The plot introduces some extraordinary secondary characters: Frank’s father, an aging celebrity doctor who thinks he can fix the world (as he used to do) with a chat with the right people, and Laurence’s American do-gooder girlfriend whose specious intentions are revealed when she meets a vicious dictator and treats him like some sort of rockstar.
The novel is at its strongest when showing the unacceptable worlds that Frank lives in. There’s a moment when he visits his father who is a living remnant of the old order:
Betty carried the brown, limp leaves from the mantelpiece to the door.
“You’re dropping petals, Betty. All over the place, Please, please…”
And the old lady in the nice blue uniform set the dying flowers down and got on to her knees. She started crawling across the floor, picking up bits of flowers as she went.
“There, Betty, my father murmured, pointing patiently, … there … another one there…”
While I sipped the sour coffee, hearing the rim of the china cup clink against my teeth.
This scene brings up the silent question: how does a white man used to apartheid fit into this ‘new’ still unstable South Africa? Frank has a sexual relationship with a local black woman and yet what is their connection? Is she his sex partner, his girlfriend, or is she a prostitute who asks for money? This is a stunning example of how Frank cannot penetrate black culture–how he remains an outsider, no matter what he does.
For this reader the novel was weakest in its portrayal of Laurence–a character who didn’t quite gel for me. He didn’t seem real–almost a caricature of an idealistic young man who is basically clueless and does more harm than good, and since he is a main character, this is unfortunate. Still I’ll remember this book for its troubling, complex moral landscape and some terrific secondary characters.