Monday, March 28, 2011
Body of Work by Christine Montross
Body of Work is one of the best novels I have ever read, and one of my all-time favorite memoirs—as well as my personal bit of evidence that I am not, nor will I ever be, cut out for a career in medicine.
Christine Montross, now a psychiatrist working at Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, wrote this memoir of her trials and tribulations in medical school, and her graphic descriptions of medical practices are written in a beautifully poetic and intimate manner. She was a poetry professor before she decided to become a doctor, and it shows. Her literary voice reveals a warm and compassionate nature, and Montross’s personal journey involves coming to terms with death and attaining balance between professional detachment and empathy towards patients.
In particular, Body of Work deals with Montross learning to dissect human corpses for study, namely the corpse that she and her classmates are assigned, who they call Eve. In her mind, Eve becomes her friend and personal guide, and she holds Eve’s hand while a classmate cuts into her with a scalpel, wanting to comfort her through the pain she does not feel. In fact, Montross dedicates this book to Eve, who she credits with helping her become a good doctor. Her devotion to Eve is remarkably, almost achingly moving, and her philosophical musings of life, death and the nature of human relationships are at once viscerally familiar and universally relatable.
Montross also proves to be an exceptional storyteller, as she writes of the history of corpse dissection as medical practice; of eras such as the 18th century, when students could only work with corpses of executed prisoners; of medical students who resorted to robbing graves when governments wouldn’t provide specimens. There’s also the intriguing story of Burke and Hare, serial murderers in 19th century Scotland who sold corpses of their victims to a medical professor. Also fascinating is her research on how the practice currently varies among different cultures; for example, medical students in India regard their specimens as sacred, and they carry out group prayers and ceremonies for them before the dissections.
Indeed, not only is Body of Work emotionally affecting; it is entertaining and educational as well. Not only is it a must-read for anyone considering a career in medicine; it’s the spellbinding work of a master poet and storyteller. However, bear in mind that one must have a strong stomach to withstand the graphic imagery. In any case, it’s a rare and stunning book and a wonderfully worthwhile read; it’s poetry in its purest form.