• Renee Rowland

Review: A Mistake by Carl Shuker

Warning: This novel contains suicide and animal trauma.

We chose A Mistake by Carl Shuker as our 2019 Book of the Year because when it got to December, we were still thinking about this short, sharp, thrilling book that we had read way back in March. It had stuck to us like a shadow and we just couldn't shake it off.

When A Mistake went on to become a finalist for the Jan Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, we were stoked but not surprised. It is an excellent book. A sharp, brutal, minimalist story about human error.

Elizabeth Taylor is the lead, a brilliant Surgeon General at Wellington Hospital. A high performing female in a man’s world. She has no filter, suffers no fools and acts often, as if she is God. When an accident happens in surgery and culpability determined, the rest of the novel traces the consquences and fall out, a mistake whose web is cast over patient, family, colleagues, lovers, friends, pets, career.

The theme of human error replays throughout the book with outcomes ranging from awkward - social cues being misread - to disastrous: between chapters the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986 is broken down and retold in a cold, forensic narrative leading up to the disaster.

“Obviously a major malfunction”

The Challenger disaster sequencing its way through A Mistake adds to the sense of unease and gives A Mistake extra collateral tension. i.e. more trauma to confront and more things to make you feel uncomfortable.

“There are simple problems, complicated problems, and complex problems. And then there’s just chaos”

There are often lines to reread, not for clarity - Shuker’s prose is clear and refreshingly cool - but for delight in form “The pulse was like light thunder, father in boots in the hall upstairs." The novel moves at pace and through small, well lit scenes illuminates personalities and events.

Human error is the crux, but there are other big issues at stake in the novel, especially now as we work nationally to avoid a medical crisis: Burn out in health care providers; the ethical dilemmas behind sharing big data; the impact of transparency on medical professionals; mental health and post traumatic stress. It is a fascinating, brilliantly written and provocative book. Read it as soon as you can.

Published by Victoria University Press


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