Author(s): Carl Shuker
Elizabeth Taylor is a surgeon at a city hospital, a gifted, driven and rare woman excelling in a male-dominated culture. One day, while operating on a young woman in a critical condition, something goes gravely wrong. A Mistake is a compelling story of human fallibility, and the dangerous hunger for black and white answers in a world of exponential complication and nuance.
Book Review by Greg:
First a warning, not a great choice if you are booked for surgery anytime soon. Currently shortlisted as a finalist for the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Award for Fiction, A Mistake is a short read (<200 pages), but thoroughly engaging as an insight into the pressures and challenges faced by surgeons and medical staff working in the public health system. Carl Shuker is well qualified to write on this subject as a former editor of the British Medical Journal and his writing style is economical with the plot and storytelling set at a rapid pace making the book a compelling read that you will churn through in no time. The characters and plot are very believable and the main character’s story (surgeon Elizabeth Taylor) is told with a great sense of realism, insight and empathy. It’s no spoiler to reveal that the subject of the book is centred around a surgical mistake, but this happens in the first chapter with the remainder of the book dealing with the consequences and fallout of the event of which the human cost is substantial. The story provides a valuable insight into the constant critical decision making moments that front line health staff deal with on daily basis, and leaves me wondering how they cope with the obvious stresses that must come from this and the effect on their personal lives. Upon reflecting on the “mistake” and how to move on, Elizabeth ponders that the surgical team had “… recovered and coped and even excelled. And as if her guarded comfort were a warning she thought past how she would feel if it were disturbed and the team disrupted or scattered, how she could use this lesson and this moment to salvage this dynamic and make it persist past the problem of people.” I must mention a further non-medical mistake and event that occurs in the book that left me strangely affected beyond that of the earlier medical mistake. It comes out of left field and interestingly provides a counter point example of how a simple mistake can have devastating effect and reminds us that we can all be prone to mistakes which can result in escalated consequences. The other big subject the book deals with is the public reporting of surgical outcomes and the risks and potential unintended negative effects of this performance measure. This is a well formed and important book, and we should all be extremely thankful that individuals dedicate their lives to the public health profession placing themselves in untenable situations on a regular basis and being resilient enough to withstand the consequences. Highly recommended and I personally won’t be disappointed if Carl Shuker wins the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Award for Fiction as a result.
Shortlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards - Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction 2020