The Physician, by Noah Gordon

The Physician, by Noah Gordon, was recommended to me by a lovely book shop owner in Launceston when I was there one day doing a book-signing. Without telling me too much about the tale, the owner pressed the very thick book into my hands and said, “I think you will love this.” I always feel a shiver of trepidation come over me when someone I like or even whose reading tastes I share says this to me.  More than anything, I want to like, no, love the books that are recommended with such passion and I fear that if I don’t, I am somehow letting them down.

The good news is with The Physician, I did indeed love this book – so much so, I felt bereft when it ended.

Set mostly during the 10th Century, this is the story of a young Englishman, Robert J Cole who, from a very young age, learns he possesses a gift – the gift, basically, of sensing a person’s life force. The reader follows his life from the discovery of this gift around the age of nine to middle age; from the tragedy of his beginnings to the triumphs of his later years. Rob J has a varied and amazing life and how and why he becomes a physician and the journey he takes to train is, quite simply, sensational. We’re taken around England and given insight into the peripatetic life of a Barber-Surgeon (to whom Rob J apprentices himself), to France, across Europe and to war-riven Turkey and then Persia and its amazing culture and religious Otherness. Determined to train under the man he’s been told is the best physician in the world, Rob J makes incredible sacrifices: physical, emotional and, above all, spiritual. But in making these he gains more than his heart and mind’s desire.

The pace is wonderful, the characters so well drawn you feel emotionally attached to them in ways that are sometimes painful but always deep and meaningful. The settings are magnificently and realistically drawn and the different cuisines, the food and drink are mouth-wateringly described. I adored this book – the detail, the humanness of it and the way the macroscosm of the worlds and religions Rob J encounters are also microcosms of the everyday – of the humanity (or lack thereof) in us all.

Shaman is the sequel and I will read that with joy – only, for now, I want to savour the affects of this magnificent book – rightly hailed as a triumph. I cannot recommend it highly enough, so much so, I dare to say, read it, “I think you will love this…”

 

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Book Review: Antonia and her Daughters, Marlena de Blasi

Having read and loved Marlena de Blasi’s other ‘Italy’ books, I longed to read this one and share her next adventure -and I am so glad I did. De Blasi has this wonderful capacity to include the reader in her life, to open her door, take you by the arm, and welcome you into her adopted country, relationship with Fernando, house, bedroom, and most certainly, her kitchen. She also takes you along when she visits other people and we become privy to their lives and the role they’ll inevitably come to play in de Blasi’s. In her previous books, these encounters have been brief and tended to further our understanding of de Blasi and her relationship with her Venetian. This is where Antonia and her Daughters differs from de Blasi’s previous books. While the sense of the author and her warm and empathetic personality are evident, this story is very much as the title suggests: about an amazing 83 year old woman, Antonia, and her gorgeous daughters. It is also about the next generation of this family, very much a matriarchal one dominated by the tempestuous, intelligent and intense Antonia who feels, when she meets de Blasi, that she has found a worthy sparring partner. And believe me, Antonia doesn’t hold back. It’s testimony to de Blasi’s comprehension of human nature that she seeks to understand Antonia’s barbs, her attempts to challenge and embarrass an even undermine  her as well as her overt xenophobia, not simply relate it to us. That she patiently allows this woman to open herself to her and thus us by a slow retelling of her history, is superbly and sympathetically done. It is also incredibly respectful and honest. The story unfolds in typical Italian fashion, over laden tables, groaning with delicious repasts that have been lovingly prepared by the females. Between meals, walks, arguments and other episodes, Antonia’s tale and that of generations of Italian women (and those of other cultures) is revealed. Like an onion being peeled, we gradually get to the core of what makes Antonia the feisty, formidable and utterly fascinating creature that she is. When the reveal comes, and the heart of the story/person is exposed, it is powerful, emotional, tragic and beautiful.

From war time Italy through to the invasion of tourists and expats from Europe and America in contemporary times, who seek to interpret or worse, impose themselves and their ways on the Italian landscape and culture, this story spans many years, subjects and profound emotional states and how we recover (or not) from heart-ache and how the past inflects the present. It’s about memory, love, loss, family, friendship, the brutality and beauty of human nature; it’s about how we cope in extraordinary circumstances – how these can bring out the best and worst within us. It’s about cultural differences and similarities and what we can do to both sustain and bridge these. Beautifully written, the book has a haunting melodic quality that not only transported me to the Tuscan hills, but reminded me of the exquisite prose of Shirley Hazzard. The depth and richness of some of the dialogue makes you want to linger over it in the way you would a fine wine or, appropriately, a wonderful meal. I reached for my quote book a few times, wanting to remember lines such as : “Solitude untethered by love is loneliness…” or “there are no miracles to be had from geography” (though I couldn’t help but think that Elizabeth Gilbert – author of Eat, Pray, Love – might beg to differ!). These are just a couple out of a book that is filled with philosophical and practical gems. Furthermore. The end of the book contains recipes – so not only are our minds and heart nurtured by this book and the stories contained within, but our bodies as well. Thank you, yet again, Marlena de Blasi. Bellissimo!

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