Monday, 19 October 2009

Bodies by Jed Mercurio

I first came across Bodies a few years back when I was doing a stint as a judge on the first novel award panel for the Guildford Book Festival. It turned up as one of the debuts and I was impressed by the pace and the writing. It also has a rather gruesome passage about a street drinker which is one for the ‘pains’ and ‘perils’ of the 120 Units ethos.


The anonymous narrator is a junior doctor a hospital working in A+E. It’s hard edged stuff; mistakes are made, people die, a consultant’s competence is severely questioned although nobody wants to blow the whistle. The doctor’s affair with a nurse is written in the same visceral prose as the hospital episodes to disconcerting effect. Underneath it all is a pitch black gallows humour which seems at some points to be the only thing keeping the narrator going.

The book’s footnotes offer an opportunity for light relief, explaining various medical and non medical terms. One of the arrivals in A+E is described as an alky:

Alky: alcoholic (traditionally defined as a person who drinks more than their doctor).

The drunks in A+E are put into three categories:

PFO: pissed, fell over. PGT: pissed, got thumped. PDE, pissed, denies everything.

Amongst all of this, the street drinker comes in having vomited blood:

Maybe he once had a beer belly but it’s gone the way of the house and the wife and the clean clothes. His skin is white, his arms and legs bone thin. His abdomen creases in rolls, rolls of skin, not fat. A beard tangles over the lower half of his face streaked grey and clumped with debris. He can’t shave because of the tremors. I’m asking questions. Vomit breath stinks out the cubicle. “What colour was it? Was it food or liquid you’d taken down earlier? Was it dark green? was it red with blood? Was it very dark brown like coffee grounds?”... “Coffee grounds*,” he says as if he’s said it before. [*Coffee Grounds: the standard description of blood from an old gastric bleed (fresh blood is, of course, red).]

The man won’t make the end of the book, and neither will the narrator as a doctor. The jury still seems to be out as whether it’s a brave exposé of hospital practice or whether Mercurio is a jaded and bitter man who should never have gone into the profession on the first place. The novel ended up as second fiddle to a successful TV series, so criticism seems a little pointless now...

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