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Dirty Work, by Gabriel Weston

review published on September 8, 2013. Reviewed by Susan Osborne

Gabriel Weston’s first book, Direct Red, was an account of her time as young surgeon training in a large London teaching hospital. It was remarkable for its honesty and compassion but most arresting was the elegant, clear-eyed yet sometimes poetically beautiful prose with which she described her work. This quietly striking style also characterises her first novel, Dirty Work, which follows four weeks in which Alice Mullion, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, must await a tribunal’s verdict on whether she is fit to continue practising surgery after her patient suffers a catastrophic haemorrhage.

Alice’s work is her life. Not much room for anything else when you’ve spent seven years intensively studying, then working all hours and must not only continue to maintain your knowledge but publish new research if you are to get on. The enforced hiatus gives her the time for reflection that she does not otherwise have. Weston interweaves Alice’s thoughts about her childhood, her relationships and her career with her fears about the tribunal’s investigation and her part in its procedures. In vivid vignettes we learn that Alice was a studious little girl whose happiest time was the years she spent in the States. She is a little obsessive harbouring a yearning for Tom with whom she shared a night of adolescent kissing until her disappointing encounter with him in adulthood. She has a loving and supportive sister who insists that she comes to stay weekends during the limbo of her suspension. She lives on her own and has few friends. Gradually we learn that Alice performs abortions.

On the book’s press release, Lionel Shriver is quoted as describing Dirty Work as a ‘brave book’. Indeed it is, and a very necessary one. Readers will no doubt have strong views about abortion but whatever your standpoint, Dirty Work will make you think about it again, perhaps in ways you don’t expect. By taking us through Alice’s thought processes, Weston forces her readers to think not just about the women who undergo abortion, or about the foetuses aborted, but also about the effects upon the doctors who perform the procedure and how the issue is talked about, or perhaps not talked about, by the profession. While giving her readers the opportunity to skip ahead, Weston refuses to spare them the physical details of an abortion, both the actual process and what has to be done to ensure that it has been entirely successful. And we shouldn’t look away. Those of us who are pro-choice should understand what we expect of those who carry out our wishes and the toll it takes on them. Dirty Work is not a polemical book for either the pro-choice or anti-choice side of the debate but it is one that will brings you face to face with harsh realities.

Weston is a surgeon who specialises in skin cancer. She clearly has a brilliant writing career ahead of her but let’s hope she continues her medical practice. We need thoughtful and humane doctors like her.

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