It involved selecting the shortlist and then the winner and I had the most ticks in the right boxes and of course had my winner sorted very early on. The prize which was a selection of Canadian literature and I think in the end I left it to Kevin to choose for me whilst hinting loudly that I'd love to read The Heart Specialist by Claire Holden Rothman which had been nominated for the Giller Prize longlist in 2009.
Set in the late nineteenth century, Agnes White is an unusual child. Fascinated by science, microscopes, dissection, all very ungirly pursuits for a little child of the Victorian era with a governess, and blessed with a cast-iron stomach. It's clear Agnes will go far in the world of medicine if she can only persuade the patriarchal establishment of McGill University to take the risk of educating and employing a woman in a male-dominated world.
Set against that chilly Canadian background Agnes needs every ounce of grit and determination if she is to take on the prejudice, shake off the gender expectations and fight the inequality of opportunity for women.
Eventually the men kindly allow Agnes through the doors but only as far as the hospital museum where Agnes, specialising in all things cardiac, takes charge of the pickled remains housed there.
I've been in a few hospital museums, those that house all the ancient preserved organs and are not usually open to the public. Doubtless new rules govern these now but we had access as student nurses and they are the eeriest of places, just imagine the awe and wonder as we crept around the one attached to the London Hospital in Whitechapel.
Hovering over Agnes White the dubious legacy of her father's shadowy presence, himself a doctor and pathologist of some renown but a man disgraced and banished after some ill-proven scandal.
Whilst Agnes deals in the meaty matter of cardiac anatomy and physiology and is up to her elbows in formaldehyde and indeterminate grey lumps of ancient flesh, the book is also a good record of the early days of medical research when so little was known about the complexity of cardiac anomalies. Auscultation with a stethoscope was the limit of a doctor's diagnostic tools and very good they were at it too, but the post mortem pathology was becoming increasingly accepted as a legitimate and essential means of furthering that knowledge.
Yet for all her cardiac expertise Agnes's own skill in matters of the heart seem to falter, her own heart seems to beat separately from her soul, immature infatuations and obsessions replace meaningful relationships, even those with her immediate family feel distant and remote and whether intentionally or otherwise this seems to be reflected in Claire Holden Rothman's writing style.
The novel is inspired by the life of Dr Maude Elizabeth Seymour Abbott, one of Montreal's first female physicians and though all characters and events are fictional, I can't quite pin it down but there is an almost mechanical detachment in the narrative voice that stopped me from becoming little more than clinically involved in Agnes' life, what I call arm's length reading.
I just couldn't warm to Agnes and her struggles no matter how hard I tried and perhaps I wasn't supposed to. With her energies utterly focused on her career, Agnes seems a poor judge of both character and situation offering plenty of scope for me to jump right in and be egging her on, but somehow I wasn't. It was more like reading about a life and perhaps it was that need to know how that life pans out for Agnes, given those perceived failings, that kept me reading.
It was interesting then to see what KevinfromCanada wrote about The Heart Specialist in his Giller reading last year and his thoughts have certainly allowed me to see a different perspective...
'The other thing that I very much appreciated in The Heart Specialist is that Holden Rothman never lets her prose style get in the way of her purpose. Again with Byatt and Mantel, I often found that soaring and inflated language served only to muddy an incomplete story. Straightforward prose may seem to be damning with faint praise, but in a complicated historical novel it is a definite asset.'
In the end perhaps it boils down to what we each need to extract from a reading experience. I'm a complete sucker for that 'soaring and inflated language' to carry me off over the rooftops of my imagination with my reading but equally, less is more can enthrall me too. The Heart Specialist seemed to fall a fraction short somewhere along the way, making it a good read for me, but perhaps not a great one.
If you read it I'd love to know your thoughts.