This unsettling book, Do No Harm by Carol Topolski, dropped on my doormat with the accompanying flyer which said “Everyone knows about Virginia: her stellar reputation as a gynaecologist…But does anyone know about the knives?’ Perhaps inevitably this book then sat on my bookshelf as I debated whether I really wanted to read about a gynaecologist with a penchant for cutting both herself and eventually other people. However I picked the book up the other day and read it through in virtually one sitting. It is a strange compulsive read with an assured narrative voice.
The central character is Dr Virginia Denham, a gynaecologist at a London hospital who is renowned in her profession for her dedication to patients. Tall and gangly, she clearly has issues with her body which she covers up in long sludge coloured clothes. The book is interspersed with passages from her childhood with her parents trapped in an unhappy marriage and looking for love and affection elsewhere. Virginia’s assistant in the hospital is Faisal who has educated himself out of his village in Kashmir and is happily married to Amina. His hero-worship of Virginia initially blinds him to her gradual slide into madness. Part of the narrative is also told through the eyes of Gilda who finds herself alone and pregnant and is treated at Virginia’s hospital. The burgeoning friendship between the two women is stalled by secrets in both their personal lives.
Topolski has a distinctive way of writing that is both accessible and compelling. From the very first page, the reader is drawn to the narrative with the killing of an unnamed woman. This actual murder is then not revisited until the final part of the book but the plot slowly builds up the tension and the context of the killing is revealed. The character of Virginia is very well drawn. She starves herself for days and then follows this with periods of gluttony in order to master her body. She is clearly struggling to control the rage she feels towards women who want to be mothers but are, in her eyes, undeserving.
‘Do no harm’ of course is one of the precepts of the Hippocratic Oath, that the doctor does nothing to the patient to make their condition worse. This book is in essence about what happens when the grip of madness takes over a woman whose natural impulse is to nurture her patients. I’m no expert on mental illness but the device by which the demonic ‘Ruby’ becomes the alter ego of Virginia has plenty of literary precedents, not least with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Topolski is a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist so she presumably has experience of patients with split personalities.
Despite the blurb at the back, the knife scenes weren’t too off-putting and I should know as I really can’t read anything too gory. Although this is a style of book I don’t read very often I found it to be a genuinely creepy read.