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Book Review

"On the Ravine" by Vincent Lam ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I was eager to read Vincent Lam’s new novel, having enjoyed “Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures” and “The Headmaster’s Wager.” “On the Ravine” throws us into the seedy and disturbing world of Toronto’s drug addicts. Dr. Chen is the saviour doctor at The Swan Clinic who provides addicts with a safe kit of needles, talk therapy, and a levelling drug to get them off the hard stuff. It’s initially uncomfortable to read, especially as I live a 20-minute drive from the book’s setting. The discomfort continues when we meet a gifted concert violinist and children’s violin teacher who is also a heroin addict; Claire comes under the care of Chen. The reader is caught up with their relationship—the hook for me—wanting Claire to kick her destructive habits and succeed as a musician. It kept me reading each time she fell back into the opioid world and her habit. Fitzgerald—who some may remember from “Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures”—is the fallen doctor acting as an addict’s better-choice dealer. Another dealer overdoses. Claire's sister, an even more successful violinist is the carefree addict who visits and we worry about Claire’s survival. By Ch 10, I’m still unsure what value the letters “To a student of medicine” add to the novel. Chen writes to a former student with whom he has a complicated relationship (that doesn’t seem to step over the expected line of propriety). The letters sum up where Chen’s head is at with his patients and research. Why? I assumed these letters would be eventually revealed but I was too invested in what going on with Claire and her recovery to be jarred by these summary letters. They became the places I put the book down until Chen hints the student is an illicit drug user as well. As the letters poke up here and there, they sway my attention from the more interesting narrative of the novel. The letters contain Chen’s mundane philosophy of medicine, then Lam spices the letters up with an anecdote of an event that took place. And I wonder why these anecdotes couldn’t have been included in the narrative with no letters at all. Why not it in Chen’s interiority? The letters are what lose a ⭐️. Despite my frustration with the letters and my continued discomfort with reading about the sordid world of addiction, I glued myself to these pages. Lam's writing is fluid, elegant, colourful, and thought-provoking. A pandemic of its own, I applaud Lam for taking on the opioid crisis, both in the book and his day job as an addiction doctor, cracking this world open so we can understand it a lot more and see beyond the reduction of a human as ‘just a junkie.’ The read was fresh and unusual, and as the pages turned, “On the Ravine” led me to its satisfactory ending.

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