Since my own medical memoir was published last September, I have received – at the time of writing – 57 other medical memoirs by post and email. From publishers requesting cover quotes, newspapers requesting reviews and self-published authors requesting advice. I’ve done my best to read as many as I can, as they flood unbidden into my house. They range from terrible to fine, occasionally tipping into good. (Who knew that so many people with fascinating lives would be able to make them come across as so boring on paper?)
The Language of Kindness, however, has thoroughly resuscitated my faith in the genre. Christie Watson spent 20 years working as a nurse, before pivoting to a career in writing – she is a former winner of the Costa first novel award and now teaches creative writing. The book darts around, chapter to chapter, from her first days as a student nurse to her final day as a very senior one – flitting backwards and forwards in time and through specialties, immersing us in her world.
In her introduction she tells us that she started her career thinking of nursing as a combination of chemistry, biology, physics, pharmacology and anatomy, but now realises that it’s actually much more about philosophy, psychology, art, ethics and politics. This is an argument she explores throughout the book, with a series of vignettes that evoke – as effectively as any I have read – the experience of being in a hospital. “I think of Hogarth’s portrayal of London in Gin Lane”, she says about an inner-city A&E waiting area. “The poverty is palpable. There are drunk mothers and skeletal fathers. The room smells of body odour and of the metal of old blood.” I shivered with recognition.
This is not a story of a high-octane career in a pioneering surgical field; it’s not a memoir filled with blockbusting anecdotes. Instead, it is a gently remarkable book about what it means to be a nurse, what it means to care. It struck me again and again how little we hear from nurses, how quiet their voice is, how poorly represented they are on our bookshelves. All this despite the crucial role they inevitably play in our lives and those of our families. It also struck me how poorly we understand what this role truly involves – even if, like me, you have worked alongside them.
It’s a privilege to have Watson as our guide, walking us through the corridors, into the cubicles and the occasional operating theatre. Watching a paediatric heart-lung transplant as a student, she describes the child’s body – horrifically, wonderfully – as “a dugout canoe”. The patient, Alice, makes it through the treacherous procedure, and Watson helps nurse her through a long recovery. With her trademark humanity, she sits with her and helps her write a letter to the mother of the boy who died in a car crash, giving her his heart and an adulthood. “Did your son like strawberry ice-cream?” Alice writes. Then “I don’t think it’s fair that your son died and I can live.”
The book is shot through with love – not just the love she has for her patients, but also for her colleagues and for her former profession. It’s also, by the very nature of the job, filled with a great deal of sadness. She tells us of a nine-year-old girl who dies in paediatric intensive care following a horrific house fire. To make it perhaps a little less painful for the family, Watson and her colleague wash this poor girl’s hair so she doesn’t smell so acutely of the smoke that took her life. It is a scene, powerfully told, that won’t leave me for a long time. And one, of course, that will never leave the people around that bed.
Watson also opens up about her father, as he’s palliated in his final weeks, and receives his own excellent care from his nurse, Cheryl. Cheryl becomes much more than a nurse to her father – she becomes his closest confidante, his friend; something of course that thousands of nurses are every day to their patients.
The Language of Kindness tries to be rather more than a memoir – there are significant sections on the history of nursing, of detailed medical explanation, of scholarly writing about the carer. These sections, while well researched and for the most part interesting, don’t quite succeed like the rest of the book and, at times, make for a slightly disjointed read. The jumps from chapter to chapter add to this feeling. It’s not a perfect book, and ends too abruptly. The sometimes matter-of-fact telling of heartbreaking stories can give it a feeling of emotional disconnection. But it still seems very important.
It made me cry. It made me think. It made me laugh. It encouraged me to appreciate this most underappreciated of professions more than ever, and then to text a mate who’s working as a nurse to meet up for a drink.
As a student, Watson fainted at the sight of her blood filling a syringe during a blood test. When she came to a short while later, the phlebotomist told her: “You might want to rethink your career.” We should all be very glad she went through with it.
Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt is published by Picador.
• The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story is published by Chatto & Windus. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.