With this remarkable debut novel, Liam Durcan, a neurologist and the author of the much-lauded short story collection A Short Journey by Car (2004), has firmly ensconced himself within the hallowed ranks of doctors making successful forays into literature, a line running straight from Chekhov through William Carlos Williams and W. Somerset Maugham to, most recently, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Vincent Lam.
Patrick Lazerenko runs a highly successful – albeit ethically dubious – company that analyzes consumers’ brainscans to help its main client, a Wal-Mart-like retailing behemoth called Globomart, determine its marketing strategies. At the novel’s outset, Patrick is travelling to The Hague to attend the trial of his old friend and mentor, Hernan Garcia, accused of war crimes in his native Honduras.
The narrative weaves back and forth between past and present to slowly reveal the nature of Patrick’s relationship with Hernan and his family, starting with Patrick’s first encounter with Hernan when, as an adolescent in the mid-1980s, he is caught spray-painting the dépanneur Hernan runs in an English borough of Montreal. To make amends, Patrick ends up working in the store, only to find himself drawn in by Hernan’s faultless work ethic. He is also impressed that Hernan, who had been a doctor in Honduras, still treats patients at the dépanneur – immigrants who otherwise would have no access to medicine. Patrick is equally attracted to Hernan’s artist-daughter Celia, a relationship that blossoms and dies well before Patrick arrives in The Hague.
There are obvious evocations of Ian McEwan’s Saturday here, which similarly deals with a neurosurgeon caught against the politically explosive backdrop of anti-war protests in London. As Patrick walks the streets of The Hague he stumbles upon a group of Muslims protesting a ban on headscarves, and we learn that a prominent Dutch politician has just been murdered.
To some degree, Durcan beats McEwan at his own game by resisting the tendency to show off and, in doing so, produces a restrained, artfully paced work built around its central ethical question, which is not so much “what is evil?” as “what, exactly, is the nature of good?”