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The Book Prize Blog: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif

19 Oct, 2012

Cover Image for Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

To mark the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2012  we’ll be reading and blogging about each of the six shortlisted titles over the next two weeks. Today, Holly Story gives her thoughts on Mohammed Hanif’s novel ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti‘.

At the centre of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a hospital, The Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, in the Pakistani city of Karachi. At the beginning of the novel, Alice Bhatti, secures a job as a nurse in the establishment. The events that unfold within its walls and spill out onto the streets of the city, shape Alice Bhatti’s life. She, in turn, leaves a trail of miracles and destruction in her wake.

Mohammed Hanif’s short novel picks you up and spins you around in a melee of characters, myth and medicine. It left me with a fantastic mixture of emotions and a bag full of questions.

In keeping with the Book Prize’s broad remit, the novel provokes some challenging questions about medical science and care.  It offers a vivid depiction of an understaffed, under-resourced and chaotic hospital, it communicates the vicious realities of violence against women in Pakistan, and it questions the role of faith in the care of the sick and the dying.

We encounter these themes not as isolated threads, but as part of the vibrant, confusing whole. There are many topics that could be picked out for individual scrutiny but for me the web of interesting issues provoked a broader question about health and what it means to be in ‘good health’. What is it to be healthy?

Amongst the diversity of characters and conditions in the novel there are many notions of what it means to be healthy. Some are naïve, some ridiculous, but others expose the absurdity of our own popular beliefs.  Take for example the presentations of body image that emerge in Hanif’s depiction of the unlikely lovers, Teddy and Alice.

Teddy Butt has a very particular idea of health. He eats raw eggs for breakfast, waxes his body hair and has “immense bulging” shoulders. He was Junior Mr Faisalabad in the years before his police work. Yet his physique is described in a way that makes it seem unnatural, grotesque, even clownish. When he enters the Charya ward to rescue Alice Bhatti we see him through her eyes: “the arms of his T-shirt ripped to show off his heavy shoulders, he looks like a window display in an expensive butcher’s shop.”  Alice looks at Teddy like a ‘piece of meat’; comical given this idiom is more commonly applied to a man’s predatory appraisal of a woman.

Teddy’s lifestyle also has unsavoury side effects: “…stomach troubles or a skin rash, [are] both conditions he frequently suffers from. Boldabolics play havoc with his digestions. His bodybuilder’s weekly regime of waxing his body hair has left certain parts of him looking like abstract kilim designs.” Teddy pursues an ideal of body image, but he is far from a picture of health.

Meanwhile, Alice Bhatti has unwittingly “acquired a body that many girls of her age would kill for, or sometimes kill themselves while attempting to achieve”.  How has she achieved such an attractively “thin, brittle bone structure with over-grown breasts”? Her tailor calls it “one of those miracles of malnourishment”, that come from living in a house “where starvation is passed off as fasting”. This intimate comment left me with an acute sense of discomfort. Alice’s figure is the subject of relentless adulation in the novel. But her body, which Noor describes as “the opposite of death”, has in fact an unsettling affinity with suffering. This observation ridicules our determined cultural association of slim bodies with good health and happiness.

Hanif’s novel is peppered with these moments of shrewd insight and thoughtfulness. However I never felt that the author was pushing an agenda or asking us to form judgments. Instead, the novel expresses the multiplicity and confusion of life in the Sacred Heart Hospital – a jumble of health, happiness, medicine and healing. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a short, intense read, but it rewards hours of exploration.

Below is a short film featuring an extract from the novel. It was produced by the Wellcome Trust as part of a series of shorts about the shortlisted titles. To view the full playlist visit the Wellcome Trust YouTube channel.

For further information and book club reading packs for all the shortlisted entries please visit the Book Prize website.

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