canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Apprenticeship of Doctor Laverty
by Patrick Taylor
Insomniac Press, 2004

Reviewed by Adam Swimmer

The Apprenticeship of Doctor Laverty isn't your typical Canadian novel. Unlike its title's nod to a Mordecai Richler work, the book doesn't take place in a small Jewish community in 1950s Montreal, nor does it take place in turn of the century Prince Edward Island or some Godforsaken snowbound locale. In fact, Patrick Taylor's book doesn't take place in Canada at all, but is set in Ballybucklebo, a fictional Irish town near Belfast.

It's 1964 and Dr. Barry Laverty has just received his medical degree and moves to the small town to work as the assistant for the local doctor, Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly. Barry first encounters the eccentric country doctor as he's pitching Seamus Galvin, a local resident, into the bushes for failing to wash his feet before having his sore ankle examined. O'Reilly explains to Barry that patients should never have the upper hand otherwise they'll walk all over you.

The book follows his first month of apprenticeship in Ballybucklebo and it feels a little episodic as chapter after chapter follows the two doctors as they see patients in the clinic and make housecalls. They also spend a lot of time, quoting passages to each other, everything from nursery rhymes to great works of literature to the bible, like, novels have taught me, all good boys with a solid European education can do at the drop of a hat.

Through it all, though, Barry tries to reconcile his medical training with O'Reilly's approach to treatment. He routinely gives vitamin shots to patients through their clothing, makes brash diagnoses which often turn out to be right and humiliates patients who give him a hard time. But O'Reilly does help people. Through the narrative, the reader also sees Barry assimilate himself into the community.

Trained as a medical doctor himself, Taylor writes from a point of expertise. His descriptions, especially of anatomy and surgical procedures, have a clinical, graphic quality. In fact, the writer shares much in common with his title character. They both hail from Bangor County Down in Northern Ireland. Although Taylor emigrated to Canada in 1970 and now lives in Bowen Island, B.C., and Ballybucklebo doesn't physically exist, Taylor is essentially writing about his own past and he's at ease doing it.

The fish-out-of-water narrative is a little less farcical than expected. It's not like say, Northern Exposure where everything is a little surreal and completely baffling to the city doctor. Even the more colourful characters, such as Seamus, the alcoholic carpenter, and his scheme to make money for his family with rocking ducks and Maggie MacCorkle, who complains about headaches two inches above her head, are painted with realistic strokes. Dr. O'Reilly, himself, perhaps isn't as comical as the writer intends, but it's an interesting portrait of a caring doctor, who needs to be perceived as a brute.

Unfortunately, Taylor feels the need to tie up every loose end in the last couple of chapters. And a romance subplot, although providing a break to the structure, is woefully underdeveloped. But there's a subtle charm to The Apprenticeship of Doctor Laverty that keeps you turning the page.







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ISSN 1494-6114. 


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