The Doctor’s Wife – Sawako Ariyoshi


My first book of the year is another book club read with the Japanese Lit GR group. Ariyoshi seems to be one of the favourites among the members and the group has read another of her book – The River Ki, which I missed, so this is my first Ariyoshi.

First published in 1966, The Doctor’s Wife has quite an amazing premise. The story is based on the life of Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835), a provincial doctor who invented anaesthetic, thus was able to perform major surgery, including, most amazingly, breast cancer. ‘Seishu’s first operation occurred in 1805. Nothing, however, was known of this doctor’s achievement in the West. In England and the US the general anaesthetics were not used until the 1840s’ (the Introduction).

The book however, focused on the two women in Seishu’s life: his mother Otsugi and his wife Kae. ‘Seishu’s dreams, ambitions, experiments, and desire for success are the underlying catalysts that propel the two women in his life into constant conflict’ (the Introduction). The story is mainly told from Kae’s perspective, who came from an old samurai family, and therefore ‘above’ the doctor’s family. Otsugi herself has come from a family that was also above Seishu’s station. But doctors at that time were in an odd ‘category’. They were not peasants nor nobles, and they’re educated, so they seem to get concessions from the strict classed society.

The book is only 174 pages and covered about 70 years, so there are often ‘jumps’ between chapters in which you have to make educated guesses on how old everyone was after every ‘jump’. This seems typical of Ariyoshi, as her other books are about the same length, covering a rather long period of years too. It wasn’t a big problem for me, and in fact I liked how succinct it was.

I really enjoyed this book overall, apart from a couple of quibbles. The ending is amazing (especially the last sentence) and summarises the book and Ariyoshi’s intent on writing this I think. I love how the author picked such an unusual semi-historical figures/story, that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise. When I told a friend that I was reading a novel about a village doctor in 18th century Japan, her reply was a frown and “How did you come across that?”, hah.

I intend to read The Twilight Years next, when I get a chance.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

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