The Physician by Noah Gordon (1986) 686 p.

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I have a very firm idea of what makes a good airplane book. It needs to be long. It can’t be too literary – there’s a time and a place for reading some beautifully written Midwestern family tragedy that won the Nobel Prize or whatever, but that time and place is not the middle of the night somewhere over the Pacific Ocean when your eyeballs feel like glue. So obviously it also needs to be good: compelling and readable, but not too fancy. The phrase “airport fiction” is usually tossed around as an insult, but I don’t see it that way. In the same way that people think writing children’s books is easy when it isn’t, authoring an undemanding yet engaging story which carefully treads the line between artful writing and accessibility is a very specific skill.

So: The Physician, a 600+ page whopper of a historical fiction novel which I’d never heard of until recently despite it being a bestseller – it turns out because, although it was written by an American and has an English protagonist, it was far more popular in continental Europe than in the Anglosphere. The Physician begins in London in the 11th century, when Rob J. Cole (a clanger of an Americanism, I know) is left orphaned after both his parents die. Gordon doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the time – Rob’s siblings are passed along by his father’s guild to various other families, separated from each other forever, and Rob himself, at less than ten years of age, is left as an apprentice to a barber-surgeon who roams around England selling snake oil to medieval rubes. Thus begins a picaresque coming-of-age story in which Rob is slowly inducted into the rudiments of medieval medicine, and – this isn’t really a spoiler, since it’s in the blurb – one day carries out a bold scheme to travel across Europe and study at the great, forbidden universities of Persia by disguising himself as a Jew.

I’m no historian, but I suspect a lot of details in this book are fudged or fabricated for fiction’s sake – and that’s fine. I could compare it to Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which takes place in more or less the same place and time period but does a far better job of making the 11th century seem like the grubby, barbaric and alien era it was; but I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. (And The Wake, in any case, is exactly the kind of experimental piece of literature I don’t want to read while I’m incubating jet lag in an unknown timezone.) The Physician falls short of being great literature, which airport fiction can in fact be capable of; my perennial example here would be Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. But that’s an above-and-beyond accomplishment, not a reasonable expectation. The Physician is entertaining and compelling and interesting and it never bored me. I enjoyed it a lot.

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