The Family Doctor
Allen & Unwin 359pp
Even at a time of unprecedented focus on the abuse of women it is hard to imagine a more courageous theme than a well-respected GP taking the life of a male patient because of their appalling treatment of his wife.
Yet that is the journey Australian novelist, playwright and screenwriter Debra Oswald has embarked on with this gut-wrenching tale of how Paula Kaczmarek, the Sydney doctor of the title, takes the law into her own hands, quite literally, when she engages in the easily concealed killing of Ian Ferguson, the husband of a female patient who had revealed his ongoing abuse of her and their children.
As the novel begins, Dr Kaczmarek witnesses the aftermath of another murder, this one occurring in her own home where she had been harbouring Stacey, an old friend with two young children, who was seeking escape from her violent partner. Arriving home, she finds Stacey and the children dead in the lounge room and Matt, their killer, brandishing a rifle. The shocking scene ends when he shoots himself in the head, turning her beloved home into a ghastly crime scene.
Swamped by feelings of survivor guilt and her inability to better protect Stacey, the family doctor now finds herself in a position to save another young mother from what no doubt would be further abuse, possibly death.
Treating Ferguson for a minor problem, having explained that no male doctor was on duty, Paula pictures his hands ‘encircling Rochelle’s slender neck, mashing her larynx, crushing the blood vessels to frayed threads, squeezing the oxygen out of her.’
Should she confront him? Call the police?
‘They wouldn’t arrest the guy just for making menacing boasts about tracking down his wife… Rochelle would be the one to cop it later…’
This is not a spoiler, as the event occurs less than a hundred pages into the book.
‘She carefully inserted the needle of the syringe and pushed all the adrenaline through the catheter and into the man’s vein… Within seconds, Ferguson’s heart rate surged, accelerating, tachycardic…’
Days later, after drinks with close friend Anita, a journalist specialising in criminal trials whose new boyfriend, Rohan, is a top detective, Paula reveals what she has done, leaving her friend with a complex dilemma, not least her being a potential conspirator to murder.
‘What? Sorry? What? Murder was the only answer?’, an astounded Anita asks.
‘No, no, no. But I looked at other options, other solutions. I checked the facts….’
‘This is so messed up,’ Anita said. ‘I can’t – I can’t believe… Can you hear the deluded shit you’re spouting at me?’
From here the story careers wildly out of control, keeping the reader turning pages until the unpredictable but satisfying conclusion, any details of which would certainly be a spoiler and an injustice to one of our most accomplished story tellers.
Despite the dire abandonment of medical ethics - do no harm, indeed - the theme is utterly contemporary and a revenge fantasy that no doubt occurs to many people, even doctors, when confronted by the horrendous abuse of women that continues to blight society.