Henry Marsh is an unusual soul.
A consultant neurosurgeon with both a heart and a soul.
An accomplished scientist.
Ok, in places he’s a slightly lumbering writer. His poetic moments usually have a bit of a cringe built in somewhere but put that to one side and what you have is a unique memoire that, at times, leaves you close to tears (although I suspect many readers will be way past ‘close’).
I found it of particular interest because I have known more than my fair share of brain condition sufferers with a wide variety of outcomes. Some truly devastating.
His book deals with death, cancer, brain tumours, aneurysms, alcoholism, detached retinas, spinal prolapses and other such matters. So to read something as frank and uncompromising as this was at times too visceral to bear.
The book tells the story of Marsh’s career, non-chronoligacally, as a London neurosurgeon and what motivates, enrages and disappoints him. He tells it with with a curious mix of (occasional) pomposity and humility (by far the prevalent personality type).
In it he bemoans the changes that have gradually been imposed on the NHS in the pursuit of efficiency and efficacy. Very rarely are either achieved in his opinion. Technical progress in his field may have been massive but working practices (too few hours in theatre in particular) have regressed.
But what’s remarkable about this book is his seemingly wanton exposition of his own weakness and failures. Maybe it’s a personal catharsis but despite his protestation that a lot of brain surgery is down to ‘luck’ you are left feeling that he is a consummate professional with a conscience that would make you want to be under this scalpel/saw/bone cutter/microscope rather than anyone else.
He explores his failures far more deeply than the successes, passing them off largely as ‘doing his job’ but he argues it is the failures that in the long term have made him pre-eminent in his field.
At times the clinical detail is gut wrenching both emotionally and physically, at others it’s simply breathtaking. In particular the chapter on aneurysm is like the best thriller you could ever read. How will this detailed case study conclude you wonder.
He never shies away from the big questions and ultimately you are left wondering at the greatness of the human condition and his professional ability to get to its very essence.
Highly recommended. (if you can stomach it.)