I could only diminish the impact of this book by describing it. Suffice to say one English reviewer said it should have won the Booker – it was merely shortlisted alongside Oryx and Crake – and whilst I have not read the winner of that year, it must be a darn good book.
The Oxonian Review explains the failure thus:
Damon Galgut’s latest novel, The Good Doctor, was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker prize last September. Robert McCrum tipped it for the prize in the Observer , and bookmakers William Hill had it at third favourite (9/2 odds), but it was always the competitor least likely to benefit from the accompanying publicity. It was weeks before Borders and Blackwells stocked more than a handful of copies, let alone displayed it with its five rivals.1 This may have had more to do with Galgut’s publishers than the bookstores, but it also reflects the novel’s marginal subject matter and its author’s marginal status: The Good Doctor is set in a barely functioning hospital in a remote former homeland in northern South Africa, and Damon Galgut is a resident South African writer who isn’t a Nobel laureate, like Gordimer or Coetzee (who now lives in Australia).
If you like, you could read this for its description of rural South Africa in the period of transition from Apartheid. Fascinating. You could read it as a adventure/crime story. Heaert-in-your-mouth thrilling. While I could say I did both of these, more than anything for me it evoked memories of Camus (again) and also The Heart of Darkness, a reminder that I should reread it. My hunch is that Galgut’s small masterpiece will stand up in all respects to Conrad’s. Sufficient praise, I think.