REVIEW by Shauna Gilligan

NWR Issue 104

The Hospital

by John Davies

If the function of literature is to hold a mirror at a critical angle to society, then Jackson, a young healthcare assistant working at the Cardiff and Vale NHS trust with the foul-mouthed Dylan for a boss, is the shining mirror for Cardiff in the early 2000s.

The cover of The Hospital (Or Extraordinary Things Happen to Ordinary People), an adventurous first publication, is a green pharmacy cross against a white background which cleverly reflects the layers of the Everyman story hidden beneath the action. With this darkly comic social realism novella, narrated through kaleidoscopic lenses and punctuated by Cigarette Breaks, Davies follows in the footsteps of Welsh authors such as Mike Thomas and Rachel Trezise. However, it is the brave story, rather than the writing, which keeps us reading, despite numerous typos.

In Jackson, Davies creates a sympathetic character struggling to make sense of the world. Like his rented flat, located on Clare Place, a street that does not officially exist, Jackson from the valleys, is in between in Cardiff. He is between drug dealer Dylan (‘his only option’) and the aggravated patients in the hospital where there is ‘no peace’, even for the dead. Jackson’s only escape is near Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium ‘with the destitute, prostitutes and seagulls at Drunk Corner’. His sense of absurdity is existential. Even his friends, the seagulls, are quiet on the weekend because ‘they go to sea’.

Yet Dylan, for all his foibles, through his drug dealing, is the key to surviving in this careless institution. Jackson becomes a runner and is exposed to the chilling impact of a previous package: ‘Dr Sami... had to pull out of theatre cause he couldn’t perform… the young fifteen year old girl from that road accident died, because the last package was shit.’

When Mike dies on Dylan’s watch, Jackson confronts him but is told to ‘stop pretending’ he is better than he is. The toughest question Jackson is asked in his interview to study Nursing is ‘Do you think you are mentally ready, mentally strong, in fact mentally stable enough for the studies?’ Jackson’s mistake is to tell the truth. The Hospital shows us that systems need status quo rather than change or progression to survive. The very procedures created to ensure quality training and experiential learning lead to a lack of patient and staff care.

As the novella progresses, we see the universal need for meaning through the details of Jackson’s journey. In several moving scenes, Jackson creates connections by making a difference to dying patients – giving one a proper shave, listening to another. His most successful placement is back in his old ward where the now suspended Dylan is missed by ‘the patients, who found him amusing… the nurses who used him to relieve some tension they had stored inside… the doctors to keep them going during their fifty five hour shifts.’ Given the well-developed male characters, it is disappointing that Davies did not pay more heed to his female ones.

Like Salinger’s Caulfield, Jackson realises he can’t change the world. As he observes the qualified nurses, ‘All these broken bodies had broken their souls and their ability to care’, Jackson tries to better failure. He loses his virginity with a comatose nurse despite a bleeding penis, fails businesses studies twice and then Nursing, but manages to secure an interview to run a music venue. Qualified or failed, because he cares, Jackson is broken. Without spoiling the disturbingly comic twist (to an S Club 7 soundtrack), it is enough to say that Davies, with a bold Foucauldian approach to power, leaves us wondering whether it is the patients who hold The Hospital together with their all-powerful wills. After all, it is their ultimate choice, their only consent – to live or to die.

Shauna Gilligan is a contributor to NWR online.


previous review: Boom!
next review: A Gift of Sunlight: The Fortune and Quest of the Davies Sisters of Llandinam


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