Like many doctors, Henry Marsh had come to believe that serious illness was something that “only happened to patients”, As a result, the neurosurgeon spent more than two decades ignoring the signs of a prostate problem; when, aged 70, he finally went to a doctor, he was told he had advanced cancer. Having written two bestselling memoirs about his life on one side of the doctor-patient divide, Marsh has now produced a “vividly wry and honest book” detailing his experience on the other – as a “done-unto rather than doer-unto”.
Becoming a patient, he admits, felt like joining an “underclass”: he found the treatments (chemical castration, then radiotherapy) “dehumanising”, and he ended up doing things he never imagined he would, such as desperately asking a doctor how long he had left. The result is a “slender, elegant book” about the “humbling, late in life, of a man of great skill and status”. Revealing as it is about “medicine’s power dynamic”, this “beautifully written, autumnal memoir” touches on many other things besides, A life-long “tweaker and improviser”, Marsh devotes “amusing pages” to his DIY efforts; writes wonderfully well about the brain and consciousness; and near the end of the book he offers a “powerful plea for the legalisation of assisted dying”. Unfortunately, however, his “Mr Knowit- all” tendencies do sometimes interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Typically, in an otherwise beautiful passage about the “eerie peace that came with lockdown”, he cannot resist launching into an aside about “what cosmologists tell us” about black holes. Despite its subject matter, the book is often “darkly funny”, Reflecting on his errors, Marsh recalls once admitting to a kitchen fitter that he’d operated on the wrong side of his brain. “Well, I quite understand,” the man replied. “I once put a kitchen in back to front.” Although the book is about Marsh, and his concerns, what stands out is his concern for others, In lockdown, he wrote an elaborate fairy story for his granddaughters, which he’d read to them via Zoom each night – while fearing that he’d never get to finish it. This is a “deeply reflective” book that covers wide ground, as if the author wanted to make sure that all his important final thoughts were set down.