October 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Dissection’ by Jacinta Halloran

By Amanda Lohrey

Jacinta Halloran is a Melbourne medical practitioner, as is the heroine of her first novel, Dissection. Anna McBride is 43, a competent GP, the wife of an architect and mother of two small boys. Every day she juggles the demands of being a good woman, at home and at work, until one small mistake in diagnosis puts a young man's life on the line and results in a malpractice suit. As the weeks draw on to the date set down for mediation, McBride feels her confidence begin to crumble. She was once a bright schoolgirl, conscientious and full of promise. In her thirties she appeared to have it all, but now she is enmeshed in a mid-life crisis and her youthful idealism is dissolving into exhaustion and self-doubt.

Some novels come to you beautifully composed but with all the freshness of an airless room. Others have an immediately recognisable pulse of life; they bring news of the way we live now and they set it down with dark urgency, almost as if the author's life depended on it. Much is at stake in the story Halloran has to tell, and it speaks to the burden of responsibility we carry for those around us. Each of us carries a portion but the medical practitioner is at the frontline of life and death, and inevitably this exacts a toll. How much stress is too much? What happens when the stress lines fracture?

In a famously disdainful piece on the limitations of historical novels, the critic James Wood argued that the role of the novel is to map changes in consciousness, in who we are and how we think. This is an injunction of great moral seriousness, and Jacinta Halloran is up to the task. Her fine analytical intelligence is matched by compelling, rhythmic prose, which carries you through a rigorous self-examination that in lesser hands might have seemed ponderous or fallen flat. Dissection is a gripping exploration of the deep interiority of character that Wood called for in the contemporary novel, and it reads like a moral thriller, a bulletin from the war zone that is modern living. You'll never think of your GP in the same way again.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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