Do No Harm by Carol Topolski

Carol Topolski’s first novel was called Monster Love. It was extraordinary. Dark. Disturbing. Flawed. But still extraordinary.

And so when I saw Do No Harm, her second novel I was torn. I was intrigued, but I was also a little scared.

In the end, of course, I had to pick it up. I found a very different book, but those four words still applied.

Dark. Disturbing. Flawed. Extraordinary.

Do No Harm is the story of a doctor.

Virginia Denham is a doctor at the very top of her profession: she is a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology in a big London hospital.

Her patients were reassured by her interest and understanding, and by her professionalism.

Her colleagues and her staff were equally impressed by her professionalism, and by her intelligence and skill.

But she had a secret life, and she guarded her privacy ferociously.

A stunning opening chapter revealed a model professional, and a deeply flawed and disturbed woman. An accident waiting to happen.

The chapters that followed moved backwards and forwards through time to build a detailed picture of Virginia’s difficult life.

She was an extraordinary character: complex and frighteningly real.

I wanted to understand that character, to know what made her, and the suspense was palpable.

In the end something did go wrong. And it was devastating.

I’m deliberately holding back details.

Because this is a novel driven by characters rather than plot. And to tell any more than I have would, I think, be telling too much.

A disturbing story of a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology is not for everyone, and I half wished that I hadn’t picked it up.

The writing, the characterisation, the suspense – so much in this book was brilliant. I had to keep reading; I had to know.

I just felt that the balance was a little off: the balance of plot and character.

A flaw, but not a fatal flaw.

Because I really can’t think of another author who deals with such difficult subject matter with such insight and intelligence.

And now I am torn between pushing such dark books away and wondering what Carol Topolski will write next …

Monster Love by Carol Topolski

monster-love

“Monster Love” is horrific, harrowing and yet utterly compelling.

Sherilyn and Brendan seem to be the perfect young married couple. Both had troubled upbringings but they have moved away, both physically and emotionally, from families and carved out high-flying careers. Their meeting seems to be the start of a perfect love affair

Neither wants children. They only want and need each other. But Sherilyn falls pregnant and a daughter, Samantha is born. Her parents consider their daughter to be an interloper, a thief wanting to steal their perfect relationship, and so a spiral of appalling abuse and neglect begins.

This horrific tale is told by multiple narrators: a concerned neighbour to a harassed social worker, a police officer who has a breakdown as the result of what he sees, stunned colleagues, the disbelieving families, the trial judge and juror struggling to cope, disbelieving family members, prison officers, a sex offender who crosses paths with Brendan and by Sherilyn and Brendan themselves.

Only Samantha, who had no chance in life, has no voice.

The multiple viewpoints are well balanced and Carol Topolski brings each different voice to life very well.

Sherilyn and Brendan have no perception of what they have done, they have no acceptance that they have abused and killed their own child and they even show pride when the discovery of Samantha’s body is described in court. The only thing that matters to them is the continuation of their perfect relationship.

The horror of the subject matter makes this a difficult book to analyse.

The first part of the book is more effective than the later prison-bound chapters, maybe because there is more happening and there are more points of view to explore.

The suggestions of telepathic communication between the couple and the resolution also weakened the end of the book and felt as if they belonged to a different book.

And so “Monster Love” is flawed, but it is also well written and well thought out, and it will haunt me for a long time.

I don’t think anyone could read this book and not feel shock and distress. It definitely isn’t for everyone and it’s a book you need to think carefully about before starting.

This is a startling debut novel and I am intrigued to see what Carol Topolski, who is clearly a talented and insightful writer, does next.