On Sunday, I attended two Jewish Book Week events at Kings Place in London. The first was Adam Kay and Rachel Clarke in conversation with Daniel Glaser about their experiences as NHS junior doctors and the second was a discussion with novelists Francesca Segal and Amanda Craig chaired by Claire Armitstead.
‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ is based on Adam Kay’s experiences working in NHS hospitals from 2004 to 2010 specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology. It’s fair to say his book isn’t for the squeamish reader – the “degloving” incident is among the most memorable as is the Kinder Surprise story which Kay also read out loud to the audience. The title is apt – much of it is painfully funny while other parts are achingly sad and the ending in particular comes as an abrupt shock. Kay decided not to continue his medical career as a result of this tragic incident and it was the junior doctors’ strike years later in 2016 which compelled him to share his experiences. Kay and Clarke agreed that the term “junior doctor” is unhelpful – it implies someone in their early 20s straight out of medical school but it also applies to doctors on the verge of becoming consultants with multiple postgraduate qualifications and many years of experience.
‘Your Life in My Hands’ by Rachel Clarke is a memoir by one of the medics at the forefront of that same strike two years ago. Clarke is a former political journalist who retrained as a doctor in her late twenties and now specialises in palliative medicine. Her account is full of examples of the NHS at its best but she also puts forward the case that financial challenges in the sector have had a negative impact on staff morale and the quality and timeliness of care received by patients.
One of the main topics of discussion at the event was that of resilience. Clarke devotes a whole chapter to the subject in her book while Kay used humour as a method of coping with the challenges of the job. However, his diaries also contain many profoundly moving moments alongside the darkly absurd descriptions of life on a maternity ward. The narrative of ‘Your Life In My Hands’ is more focused on the political context of the strike, but there are lighter moments in Clarke’s account too. The comic and tragic elements blend remarkably well in both books, and the core message about the importance of providing the NHS with the resources it needs shines through.
‘The Awkward Age’ by Francesca Segal tells the story of widowed piano teacher Julia Alden and American doctor James Fuller, a middle-aged couple who have recently moved in together with their teenage children from previous relationships. Julia’s daughter Gwen and James’s son Nathan are initially at loggerheads but the step-siblings later begin a relationship of their own resulting in Gwen’s pregnancy. The title of the novel is something of an understatement – it posits an uncomfortable, morally ambiguous, frustrating and very messy scenario in which there are no immediate solutions or happy outcomes for anyone involved, with cultural barriers and generation gaps thrown in for good measure. Segal makes some brilliantly unnerving observations about the nuances of dysfunctional middle-class family dynamics with some great set-pieces such as the trip to Boston and fleshed-out supporting characters like Phillip and Iris, the parents of Julia’s first husband.
I initially had some reservations about the realism of the situation such as how the teenage pregnancy would be handled in that particular demographic of North London and there were times when I thought Gwen appeared to be much younger than sixteen years old in terms of her behaviour and attitude. However, these improbabilities are what make the story so brilliantly uncomfortable, emphasising Gwen’s naivety and the consequences of Julia’s molly-coddling parenting. As Segal said during the discussion, there are no winners in this situation and her efforts to bring out the human side of her characters certainly pays off.
The Lie of the Land’ is a state-of-the-nation novel addressing zero-hours contracts, the housing crisis and other consequences of the recession for the middle class. Amanda Craig read the opening paragraphs of ‘The Lie of the Land’ joking to the audience that “if you think the main protagonists Quentin and Lottie are awful people, that’s because you’re supposed to”. Their financial circumstances prevent them from seeking a divorce and as they can no longer afford to live in London after losing their jobs in the recession, they move to Devon with their teenage children, only to find that life in the countryside is not as idyllic as Lottie had hoped.
‘The Awkward Age’ and ‘The Lie of the Land’ are both very witty and nuanced in their observations about the complexities of modern family life. Craig says that it might not be considered terribly fashionable at the moment to write a book with a plot, but she points out that “writing is an art, not just a craft”. Segal and Craig have also repeatedly faced assumptions that they are writing thinly veiled accounts of events in their own lives, something that male novelists are rarely questioned about.
Segal is currently working on a non-fiction account of her experience of giving birth to premature twin daughters while Craig is writing another novel set in the West Country. I’m also keen to read Craig’s other work – I like the idea that many of her characters recur in different novels set in a self-contained universe yet they can all be read as stand-alone books too.
I really enjoyed the afternoon I spent at Jewish Book Week. If you are in the London area this week, I highly recommend checking out the huge variety of interesting events taking place until Sunday 11th March.