Available from today in bookshops nationwide. Launched tonight at Wellington’s Unity Books.
I’m a sucker for any book about strong women, medicine, and Wellington. This book is a slam-dunk, because it covers all three, so, spoiler alert: I loved this book.
A Mistake, by New Zealand author Carl Shuker, follows a brilliant surgeon, Elizabeth Taylor, who is at the peak of her powers as a surgeon, but somehow continually getting in her own way as a human being. So devoted to perfection she will demolish an entire internal wall of her house to get rid of a barely perceptible imperfection, she has alienated almost every person she comes into contact with.
When surgery goes wrong and a patient dies, Elizabeth finds that the people and institutions she has sacrificed her adult life for would rather avert their eyes then stand by her. At the same time the government is preparing to publicly report surgical outcomes, with the potential to ruin a surgeon’s career overnight. Elizabeth has to navigate the opaque politics of the hospital, the DHB, and the medical community with enough skill to salvage her own career.
Elizabeth is, in many ways, not a particularly likeable person, so it is a huge tribute to Shuker’s skills as an author that I cared so much for her fate I could hardly put A Mistake down. A Mistake is a short book – only 182 pages – and Shuker writes with a brief, almost staccato style in places. Yet his characterisation is so deft I feel I know her like a friend. A friend who has continually battled the inherent sexism and deeply slanted gender politics of the medical profession for twenty years and still can’t rustle up one person she can actually rely on among her colleagues.
Elizabeth is a strong person with a laser focus on whatever task she decides to conquer, and an unbelievable loyalty to the teams of medical professionals she works with. She is also unpleasantly honest, demanding and not given to unnecessary niceties. This combination of behaviour raises her to the height of profession, and would be not only tolerated but rewarded and praised in a man. Yet for Elizabeth, this leads to her almost total alienation by her peers. It is a story that women have seen happen over and over again, and it is both slightly astonishing and deeply reassuring to see this recognised and reflected by a male author.
Interwoven with Elizabeth’s narrative is a parallel retelling of the timeline of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy. This might sound forced and out of place, but in Shuker’s hands it makes perfect sense, both echoing and enhancing Elizabeth’s story – in a complex machine, as in a human being, the smallest failure can lead to disaster. Even though the world knows how the Challenger’s trajectory played out, I still found I was racing to read the next instalment of the timeline.
Wellington plays a small but significant part in the charm of this book. It is surprising that it is still, in 2019, relatively rare to read a book that celebrates its New Zealand-ness rather than smothering it or bleaching it to the point it could be set in any country in the world. So it still feels to me like a fresh delight to read a book so assuredly set in New Zealand.
This is Shuker’s fifth novel and the first I have read. My unread books pile is threatening to engulf my entire house, but based on the strength of A Mistake, I’m willing to add the rest of Shuker’s oeuvre to the towering stack.
Reviewed by Emma Marr
by Carl Shuker
Published by Victoria University Press