it is unusual for one Ignatius novelist to review another, but I cannot
resist chatting about Fiorella de Maria’s excellent legal thriller Do No Harm.
This is partly because, like De Maria, I am a Catholic migrant to the
United Kingdom and, to a certain extent (for I live in Scotland, not
England), the legal, medical and ecclesiastical systems she describes
affect me, too. And as I read her story, I began to recognize other
aspects, and perhaps actual personalities, of Catholic British life.
Only a million Catholics in England and Wales bother go to Mass on
Sunday; British Catholics live their devotional life in a small pond.
Do No Harm
centres around the fate of Dr. Matthew Kemble, an English physician who
is charged with assault and battery after saving the life of a suicidal
young woman with a so-called “living will.” Daisy comes from an
aristocratic family with historical ties to the eugenics and euthanasia
movements. Dr. Kemble had campaigned fruitlessly against the “End of Life
Care Bill”, never suspecting that he himself would be the first doctor
whose conscience it would seek to override. Daisy’s brother, furious
that Daisy had received life-saving care, reports Dr. Kemble to the
police. Before long, Dr. Kemble is arrested at home in front of his wife
and four small children and led to a waiting police car in handcuffs.
Daisy lies in a coma.
Although the story is told from several
points of view, the role of protagonist lies equally between Dr. Kemble
and his solicitor’s assistant, Maria. As a passionate,
twenty-two-year-old law student and Catholic activist, Maria serves as
an excellent foil to the mild-mannered, middle-aged, almost milquetoast
Matthew. Matthew is the kind of old-fashioned, upper middle-class public
school boy (the Jesuit school he and his solicitor attended is almost
certainly Stoneyhurst) who thinks being noticed is in terrible taste.
Although descended from English Catholic martyrs, he has no wish to
become one himself. Maria is, in the words of her employer Jonathan
Kirkpatrick, “fairly typical of that John Paul generation of London
Catholic…orthodox, highly strung, highly educated, take themselves far
too seriously, but we can forgive them that.” She also has a taste for
risk and adventure, which gets her ejected from buildings, arrested and
eventually beaten black and blue. Matthew is a loveable martyr because
he isn’t cut out for martyrdom. Maria is a loveable heroine because her
ruses never work.
Both the plot and a sub-plot concerning a
pregnant Chinese teenager at risk of deportation are compelling, and the
pacing is good. What impresses me most about the book, however, are the
characters. Either De Maria has based solicitor Jonathan and his wife
Freya Kirkpatrick closely on people I know, or she has pulled off the
author’s magic trick of making a reader believe the characters must
be real. They are wonderfully vivid, both because De Maria makes
harmonious contrastssensitive Matthew is a family man with a
Madonna-like Spanish wife; charming Jonathan is childless and married to
an old-fashioned “jolly hockey sticks” Englishwomanand because she has
an eye and ear for detail. If you have romantic PBS fantasies about
London, De Maria expels them for you. London is a tough, crowded,
multi-ethnic place, absolutely lousy with class divisions and
The plot is is all too believable. A Scottish doctor
snarls that Matthew’s trial is obscene: “The state doesn’t want honest,
hardworking, conscientious doctors. It wants automatons following
procedures.” One of the the most uncomfortable aspects of my life in the
UK has been dealing with doctors who keep offering me IVF treatments
despite my repeated assertions that as a Catholic I have serious moral
objections to IVF.
My one argument with the book, or with the
character Maria, is the unexplained anti-English feeling. Maria reveals
only on page 159 that she is “not bloody English.” As Maria went to a
girls’ boarding school and to Oxford and works like the dickens for
illegal migrants without mentioning her own foreign origins, I was very
surprised to read this. Later Maria trashes the native English thusly:
“It was so, so very English! All these frosty people trapped behind
their own ironic detachment, too cowardly to reach out and empathise
with any other member of the human racelet alone someone of whom they
did not approveuntil they had forgotten how it felt to feel the
stirrings of human affection and solidarity.”
Well, steady on,
there, Maria. Meanwhile, she’s never been to Scotland, so is she Welsh?
Irish? Polish? (The only non-English characters Maria holds in dislike
are Polish.) Since one of the themes of the book is the lack of British
sensitivity to illegal migrants, her own roots do indeed matter.
unprecedented mass migration is seen almost entirely from an
immigrant’s point of view; the culture-shocked English working classes
make their appearance in the novel solely as unsympathetic bureaucratic
drones or thugs. If not English, Maria is terribly British in that she
is deeply influenced by the vampirish class system. She loathes both
“arrogant toffs” and button-pushing prols while adoring (and, by virtual
adoption, belonging to) the Oxbridge educated, Catholic segment of the
upper middle classes. Of course, Maria’s class prejudices make her all
the more believable as an authentically British character.
My conclusion is that this, at last, is a novel about us,
which is to say, faithful, university educated Catholics in the UK
today. I will certainly recommend this book to all my Catholic friends,
and if the bureaucratic British powers that be would like to know what
educated, faithful British Catholics think of them, they need only read Do No Harm.
Do No Harm: A Novel
(also available in Electronic Book Format)
by Fiorella de Maria
Ignatius Press, 2013
Hardcover | 235 pages