Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal el Saadawi translated by Catherine Cobham
Science gives her confidence, her career a certain amount of independence and status, but there’s something missing. Patients are barely perceived as people: their symptoms measured and treated, their feelings disregarded. In addition, the young woman remains estranged from her own vulnerabilities, her sexuality not yet addressed.
Looking for love, she marries a man who admires her, but his weakness becomes a prison for them both. Ignoring the gossip, she leaves him, but will she ever manage to integrate the different sides of herself?
Nawal el Saadawi is one of the world’s greatest feminist intellectuals and activists, who lifted the veil on FGM long before it had a name. Her first book, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, a novella loosely based on her own experiences, first appeared in serial form in 1957 in an Egyptian magazine. Catherine Cobham’s English translation was published by Saqi Books in 1988 and has just been reissued. Thanks to them for my review copy.
The theme is universal: how does a woman become her best self in a society structured to make her less than a man? What does she lose in rejecting the trappings of manufactured femininity, in always having to fight? Can she find love across the gender divide, or will all men try to put her down? The issues go beyond feminism to the heart of what it is to be human. How do we reconcile our contradictory needs and desires?
While an undemanding read, this is a novella of the mind. The issues are well articulated but, for the European reader over half a century on from when it was written, additional context would have enhanced the read. I wondered how the Egypt sketched here differs from Europe at the time and from the country itself in the twenty-first century, but those aren’t questions the work seeks to address.
Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar
As a man of science, the doctor is sceptical. Steeped in superstition, his assistant is scared. But compassion is stronger than doubt and they prepare for a long night. Nevertheless, they are challenged: by fatigue; by the doctor’s lack of recent surgical experience and inadequate equipment; by the need to keep their activity secret from the rest of the village.
Indian-born doctor Vikram Paralkar’s fiction debut has a fascinating premise, which he successfully extends and subverts to its fairytale ending. A poignant, playful and occasionally humorous (I loved that the afterlife is run by bureaucrats) tale about belief, death and our doctors playing God, I received my copy from the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.
My first thought was to take my bucket of (sea) water from Dark Water but I couldn’t stomach reconnecting with that flogging scene. (Full explanation on application!) So I’ve gone for something much sweeter, which has nothing to do with doctors, but it does it with the gorgeous flowery cover of Night Theatre.
After an hour, I texted Mum: Can you bring my padded coat?
The fat suit? she texted back. The one you vowed you’d never wear?
She brought it. By lunchtime, I was snug. Loving my Saturday job, even though Marge wouldn’t let me touch the flowers. Except to bung them in buckets of water.
Then Romeo walked in. No time to shed that coat. So what? He wouldn’t notice me in a bikini.
“For your girlfriend?” Marge made him blush as she added a bow to the bouquet.
He paid, turned, passed me the flowers. What? “Happy Valentine’s, Juliet!”