Toronto physician and Giller Prize-winning author Vincent Lam will be attending Vaughan Public Libraries‘ Bookfest on Saturday, October 14 at the Civic Center Resource Library. If you want to meet Vincent in person, come join us and enjoy an afternoon of fun – we have designed lots of activities for all ages! Of course, if you prefer a Zoom meeting, you can register on Eventbrite.
In one of his interviews, Vincent said that we human were obliged to live on the surface sometimes and writing allowed him to dive down into those currents deep below the surface. The depth and authenticity of his books is what grabs me. His 2006 debut Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures follows the lives of a group of medical students as they overcome each unique challenge from qualifying medical schools to practicing in emergency rooms. The Giller winner explores both common and extraordinary moral dilemmas and offers a shockingly realistic portrait of today’s medical profession. 17 years later, Vincent’s new book On the Ravine once again captivates me from the first page as Dr. Chen brings needles and other injection supplies to the “addicts” who camp out on the ravine in Toronto’s east end. According to Health Infobase, there was a total of 36,442 apparent opioid toxicity deaths between January 2016 and December 2022 in Canada. Vincent’s new book offers a timely, in-depth look at this national crisis with piercing honesty. It raises many tough questions about doctor-patient relationship and big pharma practices.
For such a grim topic, delightfully, Dr. Lam isn’t just equipped with medical knowledge, dry stats, and hard facts, but also with unparallel literary skills that allows him to successfully deliver a powerful but beautiful story with multiple layers, complex characters, and a compelling plot.
It starts with Dr. Chen, our protagonist, an addiction specialist, who deeply cares about his patients, who would take out his phone in the middle of the night to go through a gallery of his deceased patients, who would loan rent money to his patients and even give up his condo to one of his patients Claire, while he tries to stabilize her. Claire, our female protagonist, an up-and-coming violinist who’s trying to breakthrough her career, who became addicted while she tried to heal her wounded shoulder, who does try to break free from drugs, but every time when readers start to see a turning point, she falls back to ground zero or even much lower. All that work – love, although not romantically, as Vincent describes – that Dr. Chen puts in for her evaporates into thin air again and again. I wonder why, and then I start to see what Vincent is trying to say – Claire always feels that she can perform better when she’s on drugs, so she goes back to drugs every time she gets a bit stable. In fact, many of his patients feel the same, Vincent mentioned this in his interview with Daniel Kalla, another successful Canadian author who also happened to be an emergency doctor. This is a puzzling but realistic piece about human existence, which resonates with many of us. How many times have I asked myself: am I good enough? Have I achieved everything I should achieve? There is always a better version of us, and how far should we go to achieve that?
Other than the two authentic main characters, the secondary characters under Vincent’s pen are just as compelling. Fitzgerald, if you remember him from Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, he’s the doctor who treated Eli but got bitten. From how he dealt with that appears-to-be-police-brutality case, you probably wouldn’t be surprised, in this loose sequel to Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, that Fitzgerald has become a “renegade” of the Canadian medical system – he has lost his medical license but developed his own system to deal with the opioid crisis. He’s complex, but loveable even when he is bad!
Another secondary character I want to mention is Bella, who represents the big pharma, whose main goal is to move her project along, but she’s not one-dimensional at all. With the many details that only an insider can access, Vincent takes us through the drug development and testing process, which is full of nuances and drama, lots of good intentions as well as money-oriented business dealings. In the book, Claire became addicted from the pain medication that she received when she sought treatment for her shoulder, a body part that’s crucial for her to play violin well. Personally, I have a chronic pain condition to control, and through that process, I have developed much reservation on pain medication use as well. I agree with Vincent, as he pointed out in his interview with Steve Paikin on The Agenda, modern western medicine is a gift and has saved many lives, but they need to be administered for the right reason at the right time. Opioid addiction is a complicated topic. It would require much more research to fully understand certain pain and mental health conditions in order to control them successfully. It would also require collaborations of medical professionals from different specialties and governments of all levels to develop medical policies that allow Canadians to access more sensible healthcare choices that can actually help improve their well-being.
Before I let you go, I must mention Dr. Chen’s letters to one of his students in On the Ravine. Vincent, after so many years of doctoring, has accumulated many experiences and teachings to share of course, and he brilliantly weaves this piece into the book through Dr. Chen’s letters to his student, who has become an addict. Each of these letters are fruits for thoughts and jewels to preserve. I would definitely read them again to chew on those thought-provoking metaphors and enlightening insights.
If you have reserved Vincent’s books but are still waiting for them, thanks to my colleague Claire, check out her reading list below and start reading those wonderful stories about Canadian medical professionals. See you at Bookfest!