Touching Distance - Rebecca Abrams

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Touching Distance - Rebecca Abrams

Post by Graham on Fri Mar 09, 2018 4:48 pm

This is a fictionalized account of an epidemic of puerperal fever in late 18th century Aberdeen. Within months it kills dozens of women shortly after childbirth. One doctor sets himself against the received wisdom of the medical and midwifery establishments in a quest for an explanation. Dr Alec Gordon is pig-headed and tactless and, in his obsessiveness, loses his livelihood and the love of his wife. That history proved him right is the only consolation of the story.

It is set in an age of enlightenment and discovery and a lot of the novel is given over to highly descriptive passages of the effects on society and individuals. The richness and poeticism of the detail is mostly in the service of the story but there are long passages that I could have done without. Almost every step a character takes and every nuance of his or her thoughts is described in intense, colourful detail. Indeed, you will need a strong stomach to read some of the medical scenes, as I tried to do, while eating lunch.

If there were the same distinction in literary fiction as there is in art cinema and art music, then this would teeter on the edge. Unlike Foulds (see The Quickening Maze) there is a strong, coherent story but it is not a page turner. When Gordon’s wife herself becomes pregnant one fears the worst, but Abrams eschews the obvious storyline to stick with facts. Hollywood would soon sort that out. It is only in the last hundred pages that the book comes to life but even here there is an unevenness in the plotting – a desperate tale of revenge and death in his wife’s past and an almost relationship between the doctor and one of the midwives.

Why you would read it: for the language and the lyricism, for fascinating medical and historical detail and for acute description of the inner workings of a marriage.

Graham
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