In a tweet: Obese nurse who likes to CAPITALISE things tries to marry doctor, but discovers wife. Gets arrested for murder but avenges doctor instead.
WARNING: this is a FANTASTIC book, but it features lots of random CAPITALISATION, especially of SHOCKING words, so it is not a novel for the EASILY OFFENDED.
Now, whilst I could intersperse this entire review with CAPITAL LETTERS, I shan’t. It may work in Doctors & Nurses, but it would just be ANNOYING here.
Ok: let’s begin. For that’s certainly what Ellmann does in Doctors & Nurses, serving us a graphic prologue describing the Big Bang, which er, in her book, was a bang of the sexual variety:
‘It was deep, it was ROUGH, this mating…Lava spat far and wide as the ramming went on…the NOISE he made as he wedged himself into her…All the friction and fiction of lovemaking’
Fast forward to chapter one, where we meet Jen, an obese cake addict who is about to go for an interview in an isolated doctor’s surgery. She gets the job, and it transpires that her boss is none other than Roger Lewis, with whom she once had carnal relations on an aeroplane. They fall in love, or lust, at least, and marry: or almost do, until they are thwarted at the altar by Francine, the surgery receptionist who also happens to be Roger’s wife and mother to their two children, Edward and Adele. I hope I don’t have to tell you which classic inspired that storyline.
What I loved most, in terms of style, about Doctors & Nurses was both Ellmann’s logophilia – she clearly adores the sound as well as the meaning of words – and the Verfremdungseffekt. Even from the very beginning, we are urged not to willingly suspend our disbelief:
‘A RURAL BACKWATER. Can’t you see how FRIGHTENING that sounds? Sounds like a place in which you might quietly DROWN.’
Conversely, Ellmann’s use of stream of consciousness when she introduces Jen encourages us to identify with her and thus forget this is fiction. Her assumption that we know other characters also reinforces the idea that we are part of the story:
‘Hot. Need a HAIRCUT. Need to put my hair up. Boxes. Need boxes. Hot. Pink. Sweaty. Sore foot. Hair. Job interview. VOMIT: pink-noodle vomit on the street! Who’d eat that? Dog maybe. Pink POODLE perhaps. Better than Urma Thurb’s food though…Urma Thurb used to be NICE…Now she’s too busy.’
Ellmann’s ‘leading lady’, Jen, loves cake, sex and handbags; she hates couples, teenagers and children. In fact, she ‘hates EVERYONE’. She is a bizarre mixture: both a parody of today’s oxymoronic woman, quoting Nietzsche while Keeping Calm and Eating a Cupcake, and a social outcast in the style of Frankenstein:
‘Nobody can quite BELIEVE anyone DARES look like Jen. That meandering flesh, the flesh of AGES, flesh of LEGEND, a SAHARA DESERT of flesh…’
Essentially, the entire novel is a rant: a rant about the oppression of women; a rant about body fascism; a rant about male figures of authority. Ellmann even finds time to rant about modes of transport:
‘AEROPLANES HAVE RUINED THE WORLD. They are the source of all human misery…BECAUSE of them,you are expected to attend every goddamn wedding, funeral, baby shower, circumcision and retirement do on the PLANET…’
But because all this ranting is conducted in such a madly humorous way, Doctors & Nurses is entertaining rather than a diatribe. Although the rant which lists the many and varied conditions which the body can suffer may be one you choose to skip (I did when I first read the novel).
A word of warning: if the C word bothers you, then don’t bother reading this. Having said that, it is so overused in the novel that it loses its ability to shock. Moreover, it would be a shame to miss out on such an original piece of work, purely because it includes a word which offends you. Because Ellmann’s book has it all: sex, death, violence and handbags. What else is there?
How would I sum up Doctors & Nurses? Easy: Jane Eyre meets Wetlands. Ellmann even ‘pays homage’ to Brontë’s masterpiece after the doomed wedding service:
‘So now begins the lavish period of EXILE, in which Jane Eyre wanders starving across the MOORS…and considers marrying the sexless SINJUN and converting the INJUNS. All that stuff after the aborted wedding is a FIASCO – and it takes up a third of the book! It’s the biggest black hole in English literature!’
Buy it NOW: and never look at a HANDBAG the same way again (sorry, I couldn’t resist including some CAPITALISATION).