Monday, 23 January 2017

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: ADVENTURES IN HUMAN BEING by Gavin Francis

Yvonne Coppard is a writer of children’s fiction, non-fiction for adults and occasional columns and articles in a variety of publications. She is currently a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, working with businesses and public service organisations to promote clear, understandable English in written communication.

We use many clichés when we talk about the intricacy and mystery of the fascinating assembly of parts that we call the human body. But really, we pay little attention to it until something goes wrong. Dr Gavin Francis will convince you to look more carefully, as he takes you on a journey through the human body from the head to the toes. Along the way, he offers a compelling mix of insights from literature, science, history and medicine which never feels contrived. Each  of the eighteen chapters takes a part of the body as its theme, and starts with a quotation from literature (an eclectic mix from the Bible, the Iliad, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Tristram Shandy and more). What follows is a seamless weave of real human stories, scientific explanation and history of medicine. We become observers in the lives of Francis’patients as they grapple to overcome the frailties of their bodies and minds. Some stories are poignant or sad, some are bright and funny: all are inspiring.

Francis’ credentials as a guide on this journey are impeccable. He is an established travel writer: True North, his exploration of the European Arctic wildernesses, from the Shetlands through to Lapland, is also a beautiful, evocative read. Francis has been a practising physician for many years and was, for a time, an expedition medic. He worked in paediatrics, geriatrics and neurosurgery before settling as a GP. He is clearly an avid reader, with a gentle wit and a warm, conversational style that draws the reader into his world. Consider his description of the double doors that mark the entry to the emergency department where Francis worked for a time:
 “…like a storm drain with all the madness and misery of humanity pouring through them.”  
Or his observation on the placenta after he has delivered a baby:
“The blood of mother and baby don’t mix, but the capillaries belonging to each are brought together so closely that it’s as if a million tiny hands locked fingers across the placental divide.”

It is this striking ability to communicate across the divides of science and the arts that makes Adventures in Human Being such a striking read. The book is funny, poignant, moving and informative. It will make you think in new ways about sickness, and health, and about being human.

Adventures in Human Being is published by the Wellcome Collection.

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